Is our taste for Sunday roast killing the planet?
A UN expert has blamed meat eaters for visiting environmental mayhem on the world as the demand for beef drives deforestation, water scarcity, air pollution and climate change.
Science editor Robin McKie and Caroline Davies reportThe London Observer, Sunday September 7 2008
Your Sunday roast stands accused. According to the United Nation's chief climate expert, Rajendra Pachauri, that tasty piece of top rump resting on your dining table is the source of many of the world's environmental woes, in particular those involved in the dangerous warming of the planet's climate.
Our appetite for animal flesh is boosting fertiliser production, pollution and emission of greenhouse gases to dangerous levels, Pachauri has told The Observer. Give up meat - at least for one day a week - and we can help to save the Earth, he added.
Nor is Pachauri, the chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, alone in his complaints. A host of campaigners have united to condemn meat-eaters for bringing environmental mayhem to the world. 'The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilisation of communities and the spread of disease,' the Worldwatch Institute has warned.
These are harsh charges to bring against those of us who love our leg of lamb or the odd fillet for our dinner. And not surprisingly, the meat industry has robustly rejected the accusations. Chris Lamb, head of marketing for the pig industry group BPEX, said meat producers were being unfairly targeted while some environmentalists' proposals for cutting emissions were actually harmful. For example, keeping livestock indoors would cut carbon dioxide but damage animal welfare, he said. 'Climate change is a very young science and our view is there are a lot of very simplistic solutions being proposed.' Nevertheless, it is clear that meat-eating has been forced on to the defensive in recent months, a point highlighted by Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Served (Portobello Books) in a recent article in Observer Food Monthly (Is meat off the menu?, June 22) . He believes growing food for animals is a waste of resources in an overcrowded world.
'The average meat eater in the US produces about 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide more than a vegetarian every year. That's because animals are hungry and the grain they eat takes energy, usually fossil fuels, to produce,' he says.
The world's fertiliser industry uses natural gas as a basic ingredient and therefore contributes to global warming when it uses fossil fuel to manufacture the extra fertilisers needed to ensure cattle and other animals have sufficient food. For example, it requires 2.2 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of plant protein, according to researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. In turn, it takes even more plant protein to make animal protein. It requires four calories of plant protein to make one of chicken protein, while the ratio for pork is 17:1; for lamb, 50:1; and for beef, a staggering 54:1. 'That is a lot of energy and a lot of grain diverted,' adds Patel.
In fact, it is a massive amount of energy, the journal Physics World has noted. 'The animals we eat emit 21 per cent of all the carbon dioxide that can be attributed to human activity,' it states.
Geophysicists Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin from the University of Chicago have even calculated that changing eating habits to become a vegetarian does more to fight global warming than switching from a gas-guzzling SUV to a fuel-efficient hybrid car, such is the amount of Co2 generated in the production of beef, pork or lamb.
Nor is carbon dioxide the only issue. Apart from turning grain into flesh, livestock also transforms it into methane, as flatulence. And that has especially serious consequences, as the World Watch Institute stressed in 2004 in its report 'State of the World'. 'Belching, flatulent livestock emit 16 percent of the world's annual production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas,' it noted.
According to scientists' calculations, methane has a global warming potential that is 23 times that of carbon dioxide. This means that a gram of methane - produced from a cow's rear-end - warms the planet's atmosphere 23 times as much as a gram of CO2 produced, say, from a car engine. Thus the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has concluded that nearly a fifth of all greenhouse-gas emissions come from livestock, more than from all forms of transport.
On top of these ecological headaches, there is the issue of rainforest clearance. Despite all efforts to halt their destruction, rainforests are still being cut down at an alarming rate. Every year, 32 million acres - an area the size of England - is destroyed or degraded. Some of this land is used to provide pasture for cows. Other areas are given over to fields for the growing of soya beans which are then used to feed cows.
Apart from the increased amounts of methane and carbon dioxide that are produced by this type of farming, the world loses out though loss of wildlife - 90 percent of all species on Earth live in rainforests - as well as through the destruction of trees which filter our air, emit oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. Rainforests are the lungs of the Earth but we are choking them through our appetite for meat, say environmentalists.
Nor are there any signs of improvement. In 2006, farmers produced an estimated 276 million tonnes of chicken, pork, beef and other meat: four times as much as they did in 1961, according to the Worldwatch Institute. On average, each person on the planet now eats about 43kg of animal flesh. Nor is this trend getting any better. It is estimated that meat production is destined to double from its present level by the middle of the century.
Hence, Pachauri's urging of the world to give up meat for at least one day a week. '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,' said Pachauri, an Indian economist and a vegetarian. 'Give up meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there,' he added.
It is a fairly forceful conclusion and it has triggered an equally robust response from those who belief the lifestyle of a carnivore is perfectly acceptable, both morally and environmentally. In a counterblast to Raj Patel's Observer Food Monthly article, the distinguished food writer Joanna Blythman said that universal prescriptions for solving the world's food crisis should be treated with suspicion. 'Try telling the Masai tribesmen who have reared livestock for millennia that they should plough up scrubby Kenyan savannah and plant millet,' she argued.
As to 'wet, green Britain', it lends itself to livestock production. 'Huge upland swathes of the country are quite incapable of growing food crops, but this otherwise useless land can be grazed by cattle, sheep, goats, deer and other game,' Blythman added.
Certainly, in Britain, the idea that meat production is a recipe for widespread environmental destruction is not as easy to sustain as it is in other parts of the world, such as the Brazilian rainforest. As UK farmers point out, grazing animals on uplands keeps heather and grasses under control and help some of our rarest birds to survive, in particular ground-nesting birds such as the lapwing, curlew, golden plover, snipe and red grouse. And in turn, these birds provide for food for UK raptors, including the red kite and golden eagle. Take away our sheep and cows and the environmental impact could be disastrous. As a recent RSPB report stated: 'Grazing animals form an important component of the uplands.'
Nor are birds the only concern. Heather left untamed grows out of control - stringy and lanky - and strangles the growth of other plant species. Without sheep and cattle to graze on them, heather landscapes would eventually become barren and would start to pose fire risks. Crucially, this latter problem strikes at the very heart of the relationship between farming in Britain and the issue of global warming.
Our peatlands, which cover much of our upland regions, are massive stores of carbon dioxide. In England and Wales, they could absorb up to 41,000 tonnes of CO2 a year if they were in pristine condition. But if damaged by burning, as well as by too much draining of water and by overgrazing, as has occurred in the past, they could release hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide.
So protecting peat has become a major ecological priority for Britain, and authorities now recognise the important role that hill farmers who rear cattle and sheep play in maintaining this vital habitat.
As to the rest of British farmland, which sits on lower ground and richer soil, there is some room for change though the benefits are obvious.
'It is true that Britain also has extensive areas of semi-natural grassland with richer soil, currently used for livestock that could, theoretically, be drained and ploughed to grow fruit, vegetable and cereals,' says Blythman.
'But in that process, all the carbon that is currently taken out of the atmosphere and stored in grass pasture would be released into the environment.'
The issue of meat-eating and global warming is far from clear cut, in other words. Turning to a vegetarian diet to save the planet might produce significant cuts in carbon production in many parts of the world but it could also have damaging consequences for others, including Britain. The UK has a long, established tradition in lifestock production and its agriculture is geared to those ends. So yes, cut back on your week's intake of ham and chicken as Pachauri suggests but individuals should not feel pressured into adopting a lifestyle that is completely vegetarian in order to help to halt global warming.
As Blythman says: 'A no-meat diet? That sounds like ideology triumphing over common sense, time-honoured custom and appetite.'