I am not a vegetarian, but I applaud those who are, I avoid eating meat if I have a choice and it does not make up a large part of my diet – quality, free range and locally sourced is what I prefer. But for the majority of the human population on this Earth, particularly in countries with high GDP, meat is a staple – whether it is bush meat from the rainforest or a burger from McDonald’s, people love it. Most meats do admittedly taste rather nice; a quality beef cutlet or rashers of bacon can be mouth-watering, meat is also a good source of protein and some essential minerals. But there is a cost, several costs in fact, to our meat-eating diet which may well prove to be our undoing.
Just so that you can understand why there is any problem with our current meat consumption at all and before I go into the specific reasons of why, I want to back myself up with some data from the OECD. Last year the United States ate just over 11 million tonnes of beef and veal, making them the biggest consumers of cattle and deer in the world. They also ate just over 9 million tonnes of pork, just under a ridiculous 17 million tonnes of poultry and 129 thousand tonnes of sheep. Beef is perhaps the most environmentally damaging of all meats and we in the EU consumed 7,380,000 tonnes of it in 2015, along with veal which is mostly imported. As for how much meat of all types (excluding fish) was eaten in the entire world last year, it is a whopping number – 311,321,000 tonnes of animal carcass altogether.
But why does all this meat matter? Well if we just think about ourselves there is the health risks; the money spent by the NHS treating food poisoning cases due to under-cooked meat must be astonishing. Meat also has a lot of fat in it, not to mention that it is often cooked in fats or processed into sausages or burgers into which extra fat is added – let’s just say that eating loads of meat isn’t going to make you slimmer. Then there is the potential cancer risks from eating a lot of red and processed meats.
But the main reason I am writing this post is to do with the environmental impact of producing the millions of tonnes of meat we stuff down our gullets every year. As I mentioned beef isn’t good; cows produce a lot of methane which a lot of scientists think is contributing to climate change – this sounds silly until you see pictures of the cattle ranches in Central and South America which stretch to the horizons on land that was once virgin forest or wild plains. It takes up a lot of land to raise cattle (or any animal), land which could (apart from upland regions) be used for more useful and sensible crops, or rainforest.
The fact that meat production takes up so much land is one of the reasons why industrial-scale intensive livestock farming was invented, battery farms now produce a lot of relatively cheap meat – at the expense of all ethics or respect for the animals. But even this industrial scale of meat production is inefficient – which is one of the main niggles I have with eating meat, it just doesn’t make sense. Because animals are relatively high on the food chain we have to put a lot into them to get not very much out. Sunlight goes into plants which use some of it to grow, herbivores then eat the plants, a lot of plants, to grow themselves, we then eat the herbivores – by which point a large portion of the suns energy has been lost. It would be much more efficient if we cut out the middle man (or cow) and ate the plants ourselves – which we do, but in my opinion not enough.
So meat isn’t very good for our health (in large quantities), it is highly inefficient to produce, it has a massive carbon footprint (especially as we import most of ours), it takes up vast areas of land, it destroys vital natural habitats, its production is tainted by welfare and ethics issues and we consume more than is sustainable. Now I am not saying we cut out meat completely (if you want to that’s great) and some poorer countries would starve if they did so, but here in the rich west we actually have the luxury of a choice. We eat meat because we want to rather than because we need to; there are hundreds of delicious, nutritious, high protein, cheaper, non-meat options available to us. Yet we still choose to have meat as a staple of our diet when it should be a luxury, we should savour high quality, local, good welfare meat as an occasional treat.
With a population exploding from 7 billion upwards we can no longer afford to whine about missing the smell of bacon. If we are to feed the world in a sustainable way, in a way that doesn’t involve rationing, then we need to revise what we eat – because meat is not the way forward. If we cut our meat intake by 50 or 60% that would free up land for crops and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions enormously, not to mention it would reduce the chemicals being pumped into the environment which are used to fertilise the grass and feed of livestock.
It is not for me to decide how this reduction is going to be achieved, though it certainly won’t be by relying on people’s good will or self-regulation. I suspect people will have to be forced eventually, perhaps with some sort of meat-tax to increase the cost of the flesh on the shelves, or by giving farmers incentives to grow crops rather than cattle. However it is done, it MUST happen, we cannot eat the quantities we are currently eating when the population is 9 billion – we can’t really afford to at the moment, it’s suicide. So let’s change.