Climate change, meat and politics

We all know that we should regulate our consumption of meat and dairy products. It’s a common enough message from health professionals as well as environmental or animal rights campaigns. We know it, but like much health advice, we resent being told what to do and don’t pay much attention.

From a climate change point of view, the emissions from lifestock are serious. At 15% of global greenhouse gases, they’re on a par with motor transport. Demand for meat is expected to rise by 75% by 2050, so it’s going to be an even bigger obstacle to a stable climate – and that’s without the associated concerns about land, water, welfare, and rising grain prices as food is diverted to animal feed.

Despite the scale of the problem, Chatham House point out that of the 184 national emission reduction plans submitted to COP21, none of them included meat consumption. Some countries don’t need to, admittedly. As the graph below shows, meat and dairy tends to rise with income, and not everyone has a problem. Others definitely do – the highest consumers, such as the US, eat 10 times as much meat as the poorest.

meat consumption and income

That’s bad for our health as well as the climate, so we have everything to gain from bringing those levels down. Wrestling meat consumption back to the dotted line on that graph would lower cancer rates and help to tackle obesity. Health is a key factor in wellbeing, so there are real quality of life gains to be had. It’s a definitive win-win, as well as being one of the easiest ways to bring down carbon emissions.

The reason there’s so little action on meat is of course because governments don’t want to tell citizens what to eat. And rightly so. We want to be treated like adults, and it’s not the government’s job to decide what goes on our plates. Besides, Britain’s food culture is still recovering from the central planning of food during the Second World War, so we know what can happen when it gets taken to extremes.

But does that mean we can’t do anything at all? I don’t think so. Firstly, most people haven’t made the connection between meat and climate change, so there’s some awareness raising to do. That’s important if there is to be any support for more robust action. Respected voices such as nutritionists and TV chefs will help, always addressing the topic holistically as a matter of health and good living as much as an environmental issue. The invitation to better health is going to be more powerful than green guilt.

The government has many different ways to influence change at its disposal, and a lower meat diet can be addressed through the health service, education and agricultural policy. There are lots of avenues for creative change-making, before we ever get to banning and taxing and things that make people angry. The full Chatham House report, Changing climate, changing diets, has plenty to consider.

In the meantime, we can all get started on the issue irrespective of what the government does. Eating less meat can start today, and I’ll come back to that in a future post.

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7 Comments on “Climate change, meat and politics”

  1. marcusasdf January 13, 2016 at 6:14 pm #

    As you no doubt are aware, it’s a more complex situation than just cutting out meat, and I think we need to widen the debate somewhat. We need to rapidly get our land acting as a carbon sink rather than a source, and for many climate regions (including in UK) that implies grassland. And since we are currently driven to derive an income from most of our land, fully grass-fed livestock may be the best way forward. I’m still trying to get my own head round it all to see where the right balance lies, but the following links may help further thought:
    http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/farming-today-paris-climate-deal-grazing-livestock/
    http://www.monbiot.com/2010/09/07/strong-meat (as a good pointer to Simon Fairlie’s book)

    We may get more traction from the UK public by calling people to go for sustainable, fully pasture-fed products. This costs more so people would need to eat less if they want to keep their overall food budget the same (quality rather than quantity). When all the land which supports pasture but not arable/veg is sustainably utilised that would then be the time to manage overall demand for meat.

    I’m aware my own thinking is not fully worked through but I think we need to consider and discuss this matter thoughtfully.

  2. marcusasdf January 13, 2016 at 9:04 pm #

    I was at the Oxford Real Farming Conference last week, and this presented many examples of farmers who are succeeding in fully grass-fed livestock (both sheep and cows). The whole conference was a thought-provoking inspiration that we can transform our agriculture: although the average age of farmers across UK is around 60 years, the conference’s 850 attendees included a high proportion of people in their 20s/30s who are determined to demonstrate a different way of working.More info:
    orfc.org.uk

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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