The 360: Will giving up meat really help you save the planet?
The ‘360’ is a new series from Yahoo and features diverse perspectives on the day’s top talking points.
With population levels on Earth set to reach close to 10 billion people by 2050, the focus has now truly turned on how we feed ourselves.
Scientists believe our food consumption is having a devastating effect on the environment - through a combination of greenhouse emissions, overuse of land and pollution from an increased use of fertilisers and pesticides.
One of the key areas under the microscope is how much meat we consume.
Although vegetarianism and veganism is becoming more mainstream in the UK, research shows Brits eat around 79kg of meat per year - 10 points higher than the EU average.
Last month, the UN warned that high consumption of meat in the West is fuelling global warming, and said switching to a plant-based diet would help fight climate change.
Why there’s debate:
Supporters of a reduction in meat consumption say that greenhouse emissions would be reduced. And while not all of those supporters advocate a completely vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, they argue that simple steps - including eating no meat for one day a week - all helps lower harmful gases.
While the issue has concerned environmental groups for many years, a combination of more Brits taking up - or thinking of taking up - a vegetarian lifestyle and global protests from Extinction Rebellion putting the environment at the top of the political agenda, the issue of whether more of us should eat less meat for the sake of the planet has never been more at the forefront of people’s minds.
However, critics argue that eating less meat will not do very much in terms of reducing greenhouse emissions - and that the planet would have to turn entirely vegan to really make a difference.
And, most recently, a study by John Hopkins University found that in the UK a diet that includes meat, dairy and eggs for one meal a day (and was then plant based for the other two meals) would help reduce greenhouse gas emission more than a strict vegetarian diet.
While more people are turning vegetarian or vegan, it is also clear that “flexitarian” diets - those who eat meat occasionally - are becoming more appealing. Supermarket shelves are increasingly adding plant-based products to their ranges and the UK government has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero by 2050. Fast food restaurants like Burger King have introduced meatless burgers, Greggs launched a vegan sausage roll and it won’t be long before other companies follow suit. Experts are calling for environmental food labels to make people aware of how their choices effect the planet.
Money saved is likely to be spent on goods that cause extra greenhouse gas emissions.
“In a first world setting, the reality is that going entirely vegetarian for the rest of your life means you reduce your emissions by about 2%, according to a study of the environmental impact of Swedish vegetarians.” — Bjorn Lomborg, USA Today
Cutting out meat does not necessarily mean cutting out dairy.
“A standard vegetarian diet doesn’t replace all meat with vegetables. Instead, it relies heavily on dairy, eggs, and other animal-based products that require a lot of land and produce a lot of emissions.” — James Temple, MIT Technology Review
Going vegan can still have a negative effect on the environment.
“Unless you’re sourcing your vegan products specifically from organic, ‘no-dig’ systems, you are actively participating in the destruction of soil biota, promoting a system that deprives other species, including small mammals, birds and reptiles, of the conditions for life, and significantly contributing to climate change.” — Isabella Tree, The Guardian
People could be fed using less land if individuals cut down on eating meat.
“Some diets require more land and water and lead to higher emissions than others. For example diets that are high in grains, nuts and vegetables have a lower carbon footprint than those that are high in meat and they lead to better health outcomes.” — Jim Skea, co-chair of the working group which produced a UN report
Emissions would not be cut by significant amounts.
“Even if Americans eliminated all animal protein from their diets, they would reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by only 2.6%. According to our research at the University of California, Davis, if the practice of Meatless Monday were to be adopted by all Americans, we'd see a reduction of only 0.5%.” — Frank M Mitloehner, Science Alert
It will take the whole planet to make a difference.
“It would help if consumers — as well as governments looking to minimise greenhouse-gas emissions — knew the true costs of all foods, including the hidden costs to the environment. The food industry and outside scientists need to develop accurate ways of measuring those costs.” — Jessica Fanzo and Shreya Das, Bloomberg
Small decisions can have a big impact.
“Different foods have vastly different carbon footprints. Swap your steak for fish, for example, and you get an eight-fold reduction in emissions. And if you’re game to switch that to beans or lentils your emissions drop to near zero. It really gets interesting when lots of us start making similar changes.” — Andy Murdock, Vox
You don’t have to stop eating meat altogether.
“Red meat requires up to five times more feed to produce a pound of protein than pork and poultry. Pork and poultry are the cause of only 10 percent of the total livestock greenhouse emissions, while still producing three times the amount of meat that cattle does. This means pork and poultry are substantially better for the environment.” — Claudia Drace, The Daily Wildcat
A rush to a plant-based diet loses realistic goals.
“Too fast or radical a shift towards “plant-based” diets risks losing realistic and achievable goals, such as increasing the benefits of natural grazing and embracing farming techniques that reduce the wasteful feeding of crops to animals, lower climate impact and enhance biodiversity.” — Martin Cohen and Frederic Leroy, The Conversation
Environmental warnings are merely propaganda.
“It is important to acknowledge, that the anti-animal agriculture narrative; the plant-based diet agenda; calls for the introduction of a meat tax; and the anthropogenic climate change claim, are cut from the same cloth... The plant-based diet rhetoric could be more correctly described as a propaganda bombardment. One where the end goal is to coerce the masses into accepting the elite diet diktat.” — Edward Talbot, Sustainable Agricultural Systems Ltd
More animals = more waste.
“Using animal waste as fertiliser can be an efficient food-production practice, bacteria and other contaminants from this waste often makes their way into the local water supply, posing significant health risks to nearby residents.”— Why Eat Less Meat
Incentives are the answer.
“Farmers need incentives to tread lightly on the land they work, while manufactures, retailers and consumers need disincentives to make, sell and eat the highly processed foods that we know are good for no one’s health.” — Julian Baggini, The Guardian
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Cover thumbnail: Getty Images