I continue to be overwhelmed by my re-discovered love for the environment and its many, widely different segments: air pollution, plastic pollution, climate change, waste management, animal welfare or food consumption. Whilst these all sound very different, in my head they are very much linked together: as our global population grows (scarily almost doubled in the past 100 years) and becomes wealthier and more urbanised, it demands more resource. Energy, water, food. It’s a huge, interconnected problem which I can’t yet fully define.
The reason I started this post is because I do care about the environment. I would not go demonstrating on the streets and would not call people in Canada Goose jackets killers, but I do actively try to reduce my water and energy consumption, my food waste or the amount of plastic I use. Whilst I’m very new to the deeper layers of zero waste techniques, I’ve made some really good progress – however the deeper I dig, the more guilty I feel about eating meat.
I like meat and I don’t want to feel guilty. So I’ve started researching the UN, the WHO and the FAO sources to get answers to one simple question: Is veganism really the solution?
Current food production is destroying the environment upon which present and future food production depends. It contributes to some 20–30% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; is the leading cause of deforestation, land use change and biodiversity loss; accounts for 70% of all human water use; and is a major source of water pollution.
Moving from land to sea, unsustainable fishing practices deplete stocks of species we consume and also cause wider disruption to the marine environment. At the same time, the impacts of climatic and environmental change are starting to make food production more difficult and unpredictable in many regions of the world.
Although the whole food chain (from farming through to transport, cooking and waste disposal) contributes to these problems, it is at the agricultural stage where the greatest impacts occur. Both crop and livestock production generate environmental costs and recent years have seen the focus of attention falling in particular on the latter. The rearing of livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates some 14.5% of total global GHG emissions and utilises 70% of agricultural land (including a third of arable land, needed also for crop production). Grazing livestock, and less directly, the production of feed crops are together the main agricultural drivers of deforestation, biodiversity loss and land degradation.*
Still according to Plates, pyramids, planet “from a policy and industry perspective most of the focus in the past few decades has been on improving the environmental efficiency of production: to produce more food with less impact. In recent years, an increasing number of analysts have challenged this perspective, arguing that while “production-side” approaches may be necessary, they are not sufficient. To address environmental concerns sufficiently and tackle the twin problems of dietary insufficiency and excess, three additional approaches have been suggested”. These are:
- There is a need to address power imbalances in the food system: simply producing more food may not solve problems of affordability and access. Essential actions identified include efforts to address price and subsidy distortions, support and empower smallholder farmers and landless workers, agree better working conditions and fairer terms of trade, and improve transport and storage and market infrastructure.
- Measures are needed to reduce the amount of food that is lost or wasted along the whole supply chain (one third of all food produced) which not only undermines food security but represents a waste of land, water and other inputs and the generation of “unnecessary” emissions.
- There is now growing emphasis on the need for dietary change. What, and how much we eat directly affects what, and how much is produced. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment Report highlights the potential of demand side changes in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the food system while a growing number of academics and civil society organisations are focusing on the role that widespread adoption of healthy and sustainable eating patterns can play in addressing both health and environmental challenges.
The study I’ve quoted above analyses the details of many countries around the Globe and their guidelines for healthy eating. They are different, but the same – they all advise on lots of fruit and veg, lean meat, lots of liquid and moderate consumption of red meat.
The other side
Both science and the anecdotal feedback is pretty alarming: meat consumption has got out of hands as the population grew and now we’re trying to find solutions for meat production without destroying the Earth. It is pretty scary stuff. I don’t think turning vegan gives a 100% accurate solution, though – not from an environmental point of view anyway.
The UK is best at producing: meat, dairy, eggs and fish; to which you say no to with a plant-based diet. It seems sensible to keep ‘food miles’, with all their attached environmental costs, to the bare minimum and give pride on our plates to foods produced as close to us as possible. So, if the UK were to ditch livestock foods for purely plant-based eating, we’d become even more dependent on imported chemical fertilizers and pesticides, both derived from fossil fuels. The country’s food security would drop dramatically and we’d be heavily reliant on foods imported from far-flung corners of the Earth.
According to the award-winning investigative food journalist, Joanna Blythman, “another obvious reality about the plant-based plan is that most people who adopt it will end up eating more ultra-processed food. But the ingredient list on vegan fake meat, dairy and egg products are essentially a composition of heavily processed protein flours and water bonded with glues and additives, such as flavourings, colourings, and emulsifiers. It’s obvious to me that it’s the ultra-processed food we’ve started eating in the last 60 years that is driving the modern epidemic of ill health and obesity, not traditional foods, such as meat, in their unprocessed forms.”
She also says that “I’ve noticed that the most influential advocates for plant-based have little if any hands-on experience of producing food. Perhaps this is why their broad-brush attack on livestock farmers steadfastly refuses to draw any distinction between industrial factory farming and regenerative farming, effectively smearing the latter with worst case scenario horror stories about the former.
Such ignorance concerns me. We need to understand that pastured (grass-fed) livestock are an indispensable part of the traditional mixed farming system where animals and plants harness the sun’s energy to grow in harmony with nature as part of a virtuous biological loop. Two-thirds of UK landscape is unsuitable for anything other than livestock production. Livestock allows wildlife to thrive and abound and builds up the fertility of our soil. The permanent pasture animals graze holds surplus water and prevents soil erosion.”
To me there is a golden middle ground where carnivore, vegetarian and vegan all live in harmony and in moderation. We have to carefully choose where we source our food from (both plant-based and meat-based diet), support local production and eat in moderation. Veganism may be the answer to many, but I don’t think I’m one of those people. I appreciate and understand the biological loop we all live in – the question is: can we live in harmony with mother nature without destroying the Earth?
Let’s prove that we can – with our without meat ❤
*(Source: Plates, pyramids, planet on fao.com)