Just before Christmas, this unfortunate advert appeared on the side of buses in London:
I can immediately think of a dozen good reasons why you might eat a turkey and not your own dog, which makes it a bit of a rhetorical failure. And even if you agree and wouldn’t eat a turkey, that’s an argument for vegetarianism, and the ad wants you to go vegan.
It’s probably not the most effective ad PETA have ever devised, but it is in some ways representative of green messaging on meat. Our meat consumption is unsustainable in Britain and in the industrialised west generally, but drawing a red line under it may not be the best approach.
There’s no doubt that choosing a vegetarian diet can be a principled and sensible decision, and one that is undoubtedly better than the status quo. It’ll usually have lower greenhouse emissions and it’s certainly better for animal welfare. Whether it’s always the most sustainable option is up for debate. A small amount of meat in our diets allows us to use integrated farming techniques, which makes better use of land – for example, crop residues and food waste can be used to feed animals or fish. Animals can also be reared on marginal land that wouldn’t otherwise be suitable for farming.
As Simon Fairlie explains, “livestock have a role to play in nature just like plants and minerals, and therefore they have a role in a well-balanced permaculture system. That role should not be exaggerated, otherwise the system will become un-balanced, but equally it will become unbalanced if you don’t use it.”
I can understand how it might just be simpler to be a vegetarian and I fully support that choice, but if we’re looking for a shift in mainstream food culture, it will sound too radical and definitive for many. Food is important culturally. It’s a part of our family history and traditions, as well as our personal preferences. People will not give up food habits lightly, and the thought of giving up meat altogether sounds like a big ask.
So it’s important to have other entry points for a more sustainable diet. You might want to only eat high-welfare meat, for example, or only eat meat on special occasions. You could try only eating meat at your main meal, which would avoid those processed meats that doctors tell us we should eat less of anyway. You can also look at which meats you eat, because they are far from equal in their ecological impact. As the Chatham House report Changing Climate, Changing Diets explains, cattle and other ruminants produce a lot more greenhouse gases than other animals:
That suggests an easy first step for many of us – eat less beef. Or none. Or serve it at Christmas. If some of your favourites are usually beef, experiment. Try a pork and rosemary lasagna perhaps. You will still have bacon, which in my experience is the single biggest obstacle to vegetarianism.
As I mentioned last week, eating less meat would be good for our health as well as the environment. Most of us would find it cheaper to eat less meat as well, and millions of animals would be spared a miserable existence. There’s everything to gain, but there are all kinds of intermediate steps when it comes to eating less meat. Ensuring the message reaches the mainstream will mean small steps, easy to reach alternatives, and incremental change. Sorry PETA.