The iconoclast: Is eating meat really so wrong?

People in the developed west should eat less meat. But for the sake of their own health, not that of the planet.

“Eat less meat and save the planet!”

It’s true that agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gasses. In the European Union, some 10% of greenhouse gas emissions can be accounted for by agriculture and globally this figure is closer to 25%.

We all need to eat of course and so agriculture is essential. We can’t simply wish away the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from farming. But we can reduce them, along with the other damaging effects of agriculture such as pollution, over vaccination (and consequent microbial resistance to antibiotics), and water shortages.

Around half of agricultural GHGs come from livestock farming. Some studies claim that nearly 60% of agricultural emissions derive from livestock. Others say it is nearer 40%. Whatever the true figure, it’s clear that livestock is contributing around 10% to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions – about the same as transport.

The simple answer then is for us all to eat less meat and drink less milk. Or is it?

I’m not so sure. Of course, in developed western countries we could all do with eating less meat (less of everything in fact) as this would improve our health.

But why should people in developing countries, who aspire to include more meat in their diet, have to limit themselves too? Instead it seems fairer to consider other strategies.

Firstly we should consider farming techniques. The amount of emissions from livestock varies enormously. For milk, emission intensities vary from 1.6 kg CO2-eq per kg of FPCM (fat and protein corrected milk) in Eastern and Western Europe to 5 in South Asia and 9 in sub-Saharan Africa.

Part of the reason for this is the way animals are fed. Better husbandry, including better manure management, means lower emissions. Rather than telling people to drink less milk, western governments should be investing in helping the developing world farm in a way that reduces GHGs.

Another consideration is the breed of cattle used. Livestock can be bred to be less flatulent and more energy efficient. Western governments should be focussing on research in this area.

There are other ways that farming that can usefully change too. Outcomes such as using less fertilizer and reducing pesticides can be promoted through a combination of different farming practices such as mixed crops and using pest-resistant plant strains. Technology (subsidized perhaps by western governments) has an enormous role to play with robotics, GPS guidance, remote sensing and camera recognition all able to improve yields.

Yet another consideration is waste. In the developed West, we waste huge quantities of food. Around a third of food production is wasted. If this figure could be halved (not an unreasonable target surely) through education and cultural change campaigns this would have a significant effect on global emissions.

There are other arguments too. In the UK around 40% of the land is only fit for growing grass. To use this land, and indeed to maintain it as it currently stands (in other words to stop it from reverting to forest), there is a need to graze cattle and other animals on it, animals whose commercial use is largely meat and milk. We would be wasting this resource if we stopped eating meat.

It’s true that people in the UK would generally benefit from eating less meat. Surely it is not a hardship to avoid it for two of our three meals a day. And going meat-free one day a week is not really a sacrifice.

But let’s not use climate change as a reason for doing this. Especially if we think we can then preach to less developed nations about how they should be reducing their meat and milk intake.

Instead lets focus on the many innovative ways that agriculture, and in particular livestock farming, can use science and technology to reduce their impact on the environment.

This post reflects the personal opinion of the author and is in no way reflective of the editorial position of Image courtesy on iStockPhoto.