The Impact of the Meat on Our Plate

Meat production not only contributes to climate change and land degradation but is also a cause of air and water pollution and biodiversity loss. The farming industry accounts for nine per cent of UK total greenhouse gases, half of which come from sheep, cows and goats. Is the meat on our plate really worth the impact on the planet?

FROM Paul McCartney to Lord Stern, more people are promoting the benefits of a meatless society.

Meat production not only contributes to climate change and land degradation but is also a cause of air and water pollution and biodiversity loss. The farming industry accounts for nine per cent of UK total greenhouse gases, half of which come from sheep, cows and goats. Is the meat on our plate really worth the impact on the planet?

Deforestation, manure and livestock flatulence all contribute to global warming and are associated with excessive meat consumption.

As nations become richer, they tend to eat more meat and more livestock has to be raised to keep up with the demand.

In turn, more grazing land is required and more forests are cut down to expand farmland. As trees get the chop the carbon dioxide that they have absorbed over their lifetime is eventually released back into the atmosphere.

Manure is a source of nitrous oxide which is a greenhouse gas 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide. A recent report warned that nitrogen pollution is costing each European citizen up to £650 a year in damage to water, climate, health and wildlife.

As livestock digest grass, they produce flatulence which contains the greenhouse gas methane. Research by Reading University suggests changing the diet of livestock could reduce methane emissions by 20 per cent.

Improving the efficiency of resource management when it comes to crop and livestock production could help reduce the environmental impact of meat production.

However, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the current prices of land, water and feed resources used for livestock production do not reflect true scarcities and create distortions that provide no incentive for efficient resource use.

This results in the overuse of resources and major inefficiencies in the production process.

Abandoning our carnivorous habits is both good for the planet and our health. Eating too much meat, especially processed meat, can be bad for a person’s health as it can contain high levels of saturated fat and salt.

An Oxford University study funded by Friends of the Earth showed that more than 45,000 lives a year could be saved if everyone ate meat no more than two or three times a week.

A widespread switch to low-meat diets would stop 31,000 people dying early from heart disease, 9,000 from cancer and 5,000 from strokes. This could save the NHS £1.2bn and help reduce climate change and deforestation.
I am one of the four million vegetarians in Britain and have led a meat-free life for the past 25 years. I still remember the day at primary school when I realised I did not like the idea of eating a dead animal.

However, it took me another nine years before I was able to proudly declare that I would eat “nothing with a face”.

Over the years, being a vegetarian in this country has got easier, people are more accepting and there is more choice of vegetarian food in supermarkets and restaurants.

There are now about 30 top-range vegetarian restaurants – an increase of 50 per cent since 2007. This reflects a growing interest in healthy lifestyles although many people would not necessarily call themselves vegetarian. One 2009 survey suggests 23 per cent of the population are “meat-reducers”, and 10 per cent as “meat-avoiders”.

Despite the increasing awareness of the environmental and health effects of carnivorous cuisine, the seduction of a sizzling sausage, the allure of the bacon butty and the prospect of the Yorkshire pudding with roast beef may simply be too much for many meat eaters to resist.

While there has been a change in eating habits the vast majority of Britons still eat meat, with one-in-five eating meat every day. This suggests education and awareness alone will not work to reduce our meat consumption.

One suggestion to address the harmful effects of meat consumption is to introduce a European-wide meat tax.

The EU is already committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and has taken a number of measures such as the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs.

A meat tax would be similar to taxes on alcohol, tobacco and petrol. Unlike petrol, which is harder to replace, the effect of the tax would encourage consumers to replace meat with other food products.

It is clear that we have to improve the efficiency of livestock production and reduce the demand for meat to make the transition to a low carbon society.

The recent discovery of horse meat in labelled beef products indicates how meat production has become increasingly mechanised and the extent to which we have become disconnected from the food we eat. Perhaps it is now time to reconsider our meat consumption.

Rather than shunning meat altogether, meat eaters could start by following a “demitarian” diet – reducing meat portions by half. It is recommended that total weekly meat intake should not exceed 210 grams – a small sacrifice to secure the future of the planet.