The Carbon Cost of Meat

Whilst it’s common knowledge that a diet low in animal products is healthier, cheaper and better for you (and better for the animals, of course), it’s less known that it’s also a lot better in the fight against climate change.

It’s long been established that it takes more land to feed people with animal products than plant ones. An acre can feed two people for a year if it produces beef, but over fifty if it grows soya beans.

It’s pretty obvious why. Animals burn off and excrete much of what they eat; the grain we feed them is mostly lost, whereas if we ate it ourselves we’d get all the nutriment.

Not that everyone on earth should be vegan. If you live in an arid land where cultivation is hard, animals can eat the vegetation that humans can’t digest, and then the humans can eat the animals.

The kosher food laws never to mix milk and meat may well have some basis in this principle. Camel milk is a constant supply of food, but when accompanying plant sources can’t be found, it’s time to eat the nutrient-rich camel meat.

Even in most temperate areas, it’s never been that common to eat very much meat. It’s easier to hunt blackberries than bison. If we’d evolved eating a lot of meat, it wouldn’t be responsible for so much of the ill-health we see in meat-rich diets.

As people aspire to wealth, so they aspire to meat consumption. There are now more people obese than starving.

The number of people eating meat, and the amount they eat, has risen considerably. Between 1970 and 2002, annual per capita meat consumption in developing countries rose from 11 kilograms (24 lbs) to 29 kilograms (64 lbs). (In developed countries, the respective figures were 65 kilos and 80 kilos). Compounded by population increase, total meat consumption in the developing world grew nearly five-fold over that period.

But just as the move to have everyone living a life of high levels of energy consumption and mineral consumption is taking us towards environmental catastrophe, so is our meat consumption. In part, it’s because we clear forests to graze animals, and devote huge areas of land to growing fodder – around half the world’s grain harvest – for them to mostly shit out, instead of feeding that same grain to people.

A recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, says a third of arable land is given to livestock feed. Seventy percent of deforested Amazon is grazing land.

But more, the digestive systems of livestock produce huge quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as CO2. Add this to the deforestation, the production of fodder and the processing of animal produce (it needs constant refrigeration, remember) and the result is truly alarming.

Livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent. That’s more than the emissions caused by all human transportation.

Was that clear enough? ALL our transportation emissions combined don’t equal our livestock production!

As climate change is already conservatively estimated to be killing 150,000 people a year, there’s a new meaning to the old slogan ‘meat is murder’.

Researchers at the University of Chicago recently studied five diets with the same calorific value: average American, red meat, fish, poultry and vegetarian.

The vegetarian diet was the most energy-efficient, followed by poultry then the average American diet. Fish and red meat virtually tied as the least efficient.

They found that the average American diet results in the annual production of an extra 1.5 tons of CO2-equivalent compared to a no-meat diet.

(Report is available via here, paywalled)

The UK government already knows

You will be interested to hear that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working on a set of key environmental behaviour changes to mitigate climate change. Consumption of animal protein has been highlighted within that work. As a result the issue may start to figure in climate change communications in the future.

said the Environment Agency in an online exchange.

As it became a news story, they backpedalled (‘please not another run-in with the farmers! And let’s not piss off our mates running the supermarkets either’);

The Government is not telling people to give up meat. It isn’t the role of Government to enforce a dietary or lifestyle change on any individual.

This in the same week it was reported that

All alcoholic drinks will carry new warning labels by the end of next year under a government scheme announced yesterday.

You can also visit a website that has a large numeralled countdown of these last few days before the government’s ban on smoking in English public places comes into effect on July 1st.

Once you’ve been there, you might like to visit a big government website called Eat Well. The very name is an instruction.

Clearly the government do think it’s their role to tell people what not to eat and to enforce lifestyle changes when they’re conducive to the public good. As climate change threatens water and food shortages for people in their hundreds of millions, there’s a real public good element here.

Given that we can have a diet that’s not only nutritious, varied and interesting but also a damn sight healthier if we eat less animal products, it’s not wrong to use a word like ‘duty’ for what the government should be doing to – at the very least – encourage such a lifestyle change.

The fact that it seriously reduces our climate impact gives us not just more reason to do it but makes it imperative.

Perhaps the government might stop fearing the backlash from meat farmers so much if it were helping them to convert to lower-carbon sustainable organic vegetable farming. As opposed to subsidising meat production while fossil-fuelled ships and planes bring our organic fruit and veg in from abroad.

Whilst it seems that giving up all animal products would be better, it’s just as clear that any reduction is an improvement. Just because you’re not home-generating all your own electricity doesn’t mean you’re not making a real difference by switching things off.

As one of the Chicago researchers, Gidon Eshel, explained, ‘however close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet. It doesn’t have to be all the way to the extreme end of vegan. If you simply cut down from two burgers a week to one, you’ve already made a substantial difference’.

  1. G. Tingey said:

    Complete codswallop!

    Look at your teeth in a mirror.

    We have evoloved to be omnivores.

    So, we need to eat small(ish) quantities of meat, as well as vegetables.

    Oh, and what’s the best way of ensuring the survival of an animal?
    Make it a domesticated food species!

  2. Erm, that’s exactly what Merrick said – eat less meat. Your point about survival is no more relevant: the problem the post addresses is the industrial production of meat monocultures. Slight difference in the means of production implied.

  3. we need to eat small(ish) quantities of meat

    Clearly this is untrue, since I am still alive.

  4. Merrick said:

    G.Tingey, you seem think that I said humans didn’t evolve eating any meat. I didn’t say that. It would indeed be codswallop.

    I said we evolved eating much less than we do now. The fact that cooking is, in evolutionary terms, a relatively recent development also points to it. Try eating more than a couple of mouthfuls of raw meat and you’ll see why.

    This would also explain the omnivores dental layout. Raw plants are tougher. If you’re tearing roots and stems, you’re gonna need those incisors.

    So, moving on from criticisms for saying the opposite of what I actually wrote to something I didn’t mention at all, domesticating an animal as food makes it more likely some of its offspring will survive. I’m not sure quite why that’s relevant.

    I’m more interested in the survival of biodiversity and wild ecosystems, especially vast forest ones like the Amazon that have a key role to play in the survival of our own species.

    Replacing the wildlife with cattle ranches and even greater acreage of cattle fodder plantations doesn’t make me feel all good just because it guarantees the continuation of domesticated cattle.

    The fact that the deforestation and cattle ranching leads exacerbates climate change means the human health disaster of heavy meat consumption is starting to look like a survival issue for us.

  5. Snuffle said:

    Hmm yes. Read Peter Singer’s ‘Eating’. Excellent.