Will Banishing Meat Beat Climate Change?

The growing trend of veganism is reported to have increased by an almost 400% rise in adoption between 2006 and 2016, with a near 1000% increase in demand for meat-free foods in 2017. By 2018, it was the most popular food trend. Veganism is particularly prominent among those on the political left, who use it as a talking point to beat the political right in debates on environmentalism. But how valid is the claim that vegan diets are more environmentally friendly?

The average amount of greenhouse gas emissions created by a meat-eating diet of 2000 calories a day is 2.5 times higher than that of a 2000 calorie vegan diet. The average UK consumer eats 82kg of meat per year. Even though the UK is only responsible for 1% of global emissions, this makes meat consumption a prime issue to be approached with an individualist environmentalist ethic. 

Almost 70% of the 70 billion annually farmed animals are kept in cramped and inhumane factory farm conditions. Red meat livestock requires up to eight times the amount of feed to produce one kilogram of meat than pork or poultry. This is despite protein efficiency (quantity of protein consumed converted into protein as animal products) being up to six times greater for poultry products than beef, and beef requiring a full metre square more per gram of protein produced as product to farm. 26% of total global emissions are a consequences of food production; 50% of this is caused by meat production. Beef and lamb produce 25% of total food-farming-related emissions; cows alone have been found to be responsible for up to 65% of all livestock farming carbon emissions. (There has been a suggestion that seaweed diets may reduce the natural amount of methane produced by cows during digestion, but this could cause issues with sustainably growing seaweed, particularly in our increasingly plasticised oceans (with almost 13 million tonnes of pollution added every year).

All of the above facts constitute an immutable truth: a meat-heavy diet (with our current global agricultural methods) can contribute to anthropogenic environmental degradation, is responsible for animal suffering, and requires the inefficient use of countless acres of farmland. One study even suggests that the only models for farming that successfully meet the population increase by 2050 are predicated on the exclusion of livestock farming.

But do we need to go so far as eradicating meat from our diets to repair the ozone layer? As is almost always the case with any contentious topic, two things can be true at once: our current consumption of food is unsustainable, and, veganism is not the paragon of planet-saving ideologies.

There are some disturbing barriers to a sustainable and healthy diet in our modern age. Even tap water is contaminated with pesticides and pharmaceutical drugs, causing anti-androgens and hormones to be present in such high quantities that they are determining the sex of fish eggs to be disproportionately female. Veganism, as all diets do, comes with its own health risk: lower testosterone production in men, causing weight gain and lower fertility, can be a byproduct of consuming soy-based vegan alternative food products high in phytoestrogens and isoflavones.

Veganism also incurs additional consequences for the farmers supplying the plants to meet the avocado toast demands of the millennial generation. Three avocados require almost 300 litres of water to grow, cause deforestation for the wood required for their shipping crates, and are farmed in Latin America, so frequently line the pockets of landowning cartel members with over $100 million annually through their production. Quinoa (the polystyrene bead-looking grain in every restaurant salad bowl) is now unaffordable for those who farm it in Peru and Bolivia, due to high western market demand. Even mushrooms, which can be grown from animal and other food production waste, whilst not requiring light, need to be kept under temperature controlled conditions, necessitating high electricity usage to cultivate them as a large-scale crop.

Many products made staples of vegan diets (nut butters being a common offender) contain palm oil. With the destructive rate of deforestation already caused by palm oil farming, it is likely that a higher demand for vegan products will exacerbate this issue: olive and sunflower oils require five to eight times more land to produce the same per hectare yield as palm. Additionally, palm and coconut oil farmers are commonly subjected to impoverished lifestyles and dangerous working conditions.

Even if you attempt to mitigate human suffering caused by the production of vegan and vegetarian produce, a University of Missouri study has suggested that plants know they are being eaten. Although measures to avoid the suffering and exploitation of animals can be taken, the survival of humans will inevitably depend on the death of other organisms; no dietary choice can be morally exempt from this.

There are also concerns over decreasing animal populations and replacing the land used to rear them with culturally (and governmentally, according to policies like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed Green New Deal) enforced vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. Not only is there the potential ethical issue of human beings culling animal populations for our environmentalist ambitions, but there’s also the practical reality of increase in dietary pollutants from higher quantities of fertiliser, pesticides, and other crop-protecting chemicals that human beings would be ingesting over time. Additionally, there would be consequences for other species of wildlife which depend on waste products from livestock to survive. Should those species become more scarce, insects and their predators (particularly birds), which scavenge from the waste produced by field-farmed animals, will have their populations depleted with a sudden scarcity of food.

A useful compromise is an increase in free-range farming practices. The avermectins fed to caged livestock to treat digestive worms aren’t a component of most free-range animal diets, and so wouldn’t contribute to the current catastrophic topsoil erosion in the UK. This, over time, will allow for greater biodiversity in farmland and an increase in plant life (closing the gap to carbon neutrality) once soil nutrients have been naturally replenished in the absence of chemical contamination through manure.

But what if you’re not in the agricultural industry? What steps can people take to have a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle?

We all want the government to cut unnecessary expenditure; particularly considering our rather hefty figure of £1,837.5 billion in gross national debt at the end of 2018. As a fairly heavy governmentally-interventionist nation, it’s without doubt that whichever party has a parliamentary majority will inevitably intervene with climate-focused policies, should our situation drastically worsen. Oxford Martin School researchers hypothesise adopting government-accepted dietary guidelines could prevent 5.1 million annual deaths by 2050. Considering that a reduction in obesity, by adhering to governmental dietary guidelines, could cause a reduction in up to 17% of the UK’s annual emissions, and a reduction in NHS spending of up to £5.1 billion, personal change is a start for many of us to make an impact on an individual level. After all, you wouldn’t trust a craftsman to build your house if theirs is leaking and dilapidated, now, would you?

Vegetarian diets could prevent an estimated 7.3 million deaths; vegan diets 8.1 million. These additional lives saved will no doubt have some scientific minds among them, capable of developing technology to propel us toward a more ecologically and environmentally sustainable future.

Other environmentally conscious dietary choices include consuming more animal products that are often wasted (such as organs), which could cause a 14% reduction in food production emissions, and swapping to meat-substitute products (even just occasionally). Quorn’s own company sustainability report claims to have a carbon footprint of 90% lower than beef products and 70% of that of poultry. Quorn also reports to require far less energy to cook, one eighth of the land required, and ten times less water to produce than beef mince.

But if you’re already climate-conscious, and have made efforts to reduce red meat consumption, consume more meat substitutes, and purchase free range products, then there are some policies you could consider proposing and supporting.

One particularly pressing example would be a negotiation of tariffs on foreign food produce, following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (finally) this year. Earlier this year, former Environment Secretary Michael Gove promised tariffs will be applied to food imports by the UK should Brexit occur without a deal having been negotiated. EU tariffs on dairy products are almost 36%; almost 16% for animal products, and 12% for fish. Fruit and vegetables is 10%. To safeguard and incentivise a trend of sustainable farming practices, the UK could levy tariffs on animal products  from regions with poor records of animal welfare and environmental policies. This would not only continue to protect the British farming industry, but also shape the policy of other nations who cater to the UK’s high meat consumption.

Additionally, pending the outcomes of President Trump’s trade war with China, the UK could be in a more appealing position to sell meat with an intake in ethical farming practices. Asia leads the world in meat, fish, milk, and egg production, and food production emissions. Although the United States outweighs any other nation for poultry and beef production, China produces five times its next closest competitor in pig meat (nearly 54 million tonnes). With China’s economy on a downtrend, at a record low for the last 30 years, there could be incentive for China, under UK (and potentially US, should Boris be so inclined to sway the opinions of our friends across the pond) tariffs to clean up their ethical act in exchange for more free market trade. Or, should China continue their unsustainable behaviour, the UK could capitalise somewhat on their economic downturn by selling more ethically sourced animal produce.

Whilst I’m against tariffs in principle as barriers to free trade, they may be a useful and necessary measure for British leadership to incentivise free trade of a higher ethical and nutritional standard for the world.

So, whilst vegans aren’t complete Captain Planet eco-warriors some proport themselves to be, there are tenets of the lifestyle worth adopting to your own personal philosophy, for a more sustainable planet. Namely: moderation of meat consumption, making more ethically conscious product purchases, and displacing portions of your diet with meat-replacements or plant produce.

I know, I know, it tastes good. But let’s not let the planet implode for the sake of your daily steak, captain carnivore. 

Connor Tomlinson