Last year a major report into the environmental impact of meat eating by the Food Climate Research Network at Surrey University claimed livestock generated 8 per cent of UK emissions. It also said vegetarian diets that included lots of milk, butter and cheese would probably not noticeably reduce emissions because dairy cows are a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas released through flatulence.
Cattle-rearing generates more global warming greenhouse gases****, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation, and smarter production methods, including improved animal diets to reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions, are urgently needed, according to a new United Nations report released today.
This is only the beginning of the story. In 2008, Brazil announced that in the 12 months to July it had lost 12,000 sq km of the Amazon rainforest, mainly to cattle ranchers and soy producers supplying European markets with animal feed. There is water scarcity in large parts of the world, yet livestock-rearing can use up to 200 times more water a kilogram of meat produced than is used in growing wheat. Given the volatile global food prices, it seems foolhardy to divert 1.2bn tonnes of fodder - including cereals - to fuel global meat consumption, which has increased by more than two and half times since 1970.
Today in Britain just 2% of the population is vegetarian.
Thankfully, a more pragmatic alternative to total abstinence now seems to be emerging. Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a vegetarian himself, called on people to take personal responsibility for the impacts of their consumption. "Give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there," he said. "In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity." Pachauri said diet change was important because of the huge greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental problems - including habitat destruction - associated with rearing cattle and other animals. It was relatively easy to change eating habits compared to changing means of transport, he said. In an interview with Supreme Master Television , Dr. Pachauri shared that he wasn’t always a vegetarian until he realized the detrimental environmental impact of the raising of livestock for human consumption.
This week the Belgian city of Ghent met his demands by declaring Thursday a meat-free day. Restaurants, canteens and schools will now opt to make vegetarianism the default for one day a week,and promote meat-free meals on other days as well. This is not the first institutional backing for such a move. In Britain, the country's health service (NHS) now aims to reduce its impact on the environment partly by "increasing the use of sustainably sourced fish and reducing our reliance on eggs, meat and dairy." Last year, Camden council in London announced that it would be issuing a report calling for schools,care homes and canteens on council premises to cut meat from menus and encourage staff to become vegetarian. (In the end the initiative was shot down by Conservative councillors who insisted that people should not be deprived of choice.) While in Germany the federal environment agency in January called on Germans to follow a more Mediterranean diet by reserving meat only for special occasions. These initiatives may sound novel, but in fact they reinstate what was for centuries an obligatory practice across Europe. The fasting laws of the Catholic church stipulated that on Fridays, fast days, and Lent, no one could eat meat or wine; on some days, dairy products and fish were also banned. Even after the Reformation Elizabeth I upheld the Lenten fast, insisting that while there was no religious basis for fasting, there were sound utilitarian motives: to protect the country's livestock from over-exploitation and to promote the fishing industry (which had the ancillary benefit of increasing the number of ships available for the navy). Towards the end of the 18th century, two consecutive bad harvests in Europe created shortages. There was a huge public clamour for the wealthy to cut down on their meat consumption in order to leave more grain for the poor. The idea that meat was a cruel profligacy became current, and led Percy Bysshe Shelley to declare that the carnivorous rich literally monopolised land and food by taking more of it than they needed. "The use of animal flesh," he said, "directly militates with this equality of the rights of man."
In the wake of last year's food crisis and with mounting concern over global warming, we appear to have reached a similar crisis moment.
The vegetarian argument is complicated, however, by the fact that in terms of environmental impact, no two pieces of meat are the same. A hunk of beef raised on Scottish moorland has a very different ecological footprint from one created in an intensive feedlot using concentrated cereal feed, and a wild venison or rabbit casserole is arguably greener than a vegetable curry. Likewise, countries have very different animal husbandry methods. For example, in the US, for each calorie of meat ordairy food produced, farm animals consume on average more than 5 calories of feed. In India the rate is a less than 1.5 calories. In Kenya, where there isn't the luxury of feeding grains to animals, livestock yield more calories than they consume because they are fattened on grass and agricultural by-products inedible to humans. In a paper published in April in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, food ecologist Annika Carlsson-Kanyama showed that kilo for kilo, beef and pork could produce 30 times more CO² emissions than other protein rich foods such as beans. On the other hand, the paper also indicated that poultry and eggs had much lower emissions than cheese, which was among the highest polluters. So do meat-free days, and arguments for vegetarianism in general, take adequate consideration of these subtleties, or should we all be chucking out the cheese and going vegan?
The group has called for governments to lead campaigns to reduce meat consumption by 60 per cent by 2020. Campaigners have also pointed out the health benefits of eating less meat. The average person in the UK eats 50g of protein from meat a day, equivalent to a chicken breast and a lamb chop - a relatively low level for rich nations but 25-50 per cent more than World Heath Organisation guidelines. The IPCC among other bodies, has called for an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Since high levels of meat and dairy consumption are luxuries, it seems reasonable to expect livestock production to take its share of the hit. For rich western countries this would mean decreasing meat and dairy consumption to significantly less than one tenth of current levels, the sooner the better.
Aside from the dangerously high levels of greenhouse gases released in the atmosphere due to factory farms, there’s also the destruction of habitats and the clearing of forests for grazing. Thousands of acres in the Amazon had been destroyed for this reason.
“To understand why deforestation is such a pressing and urgent issue, forests must first be given credit for what they bring to global ecosystems and the quality of life that all species maintain. Tropical Rainforests presently give a place to call home for 50% - 90% of all organisms, 90% of our relatives, the primates, and 50 million creatures that can live no place but the rich rainforests (World Rainforest Movement 16). Not only are other species at risk, but the human race also benefits from what the trees give. From something as minor as the spices that indulge food to life giving medicines, the rainforests amplify and save lives.” In short, we’re pretty much shooting ourselves in the foot by the way we disregard nature and the environment. 500,000 hectares vanished in a single week. At the rate we’re going, there may not be too many forests left.
**Rajendra Kumar Pachauri (born August 20, 1940, Nainital, India) is an economist who has served as the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 2002. Pachauri is the director general of the The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, an institution devoted to researching and promoting sustainable development and the chancellor of TERI University. He is also the chairman, governing council of the National Agro Foundation (NAF), as well as the chairman of the board of Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society. He was recently awarded the second-highest civilian award in India, the Padma Vibhushan in January 2008 as well as the Padma Bhushan in January 2001. On December 10, 2007, Dr. Pachauri accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC, along with co-recipient Al Gore.