Eat less meat!

Food is something that affects us all. We all have to eat. But very few people know the extent to which oil underpins our food system, how much carbon is used in the production of food, how much water is used, and the impact the food system therefore has on climate change.

The current all-time highs in oil prices – $117 a barrel in April 2008 – is sending convulsive shudders down the food chain because every part of the system requires fossil fuel. Food prices have rocketed all over the world as oil prices have risen. Fertiliser, pumping water, ploughing, transportation, refrigeration – it all uses oil. And that’s being compounded by the current mad dash for biofuels, most of which require more fossil fuel to create than the energy derived from them, and which are taking up land that would otherwise be used for crops.

Camden Council purchases a lot of food directly (canteens, meals on wheels etc) or indirectly (schools, care homes) each year. We therefore have a huge potential for influencing supply chains. Considerable effort has already gone into improving the sustainability criteria associated with food contracts, and the all-party Camden Sustainability Task Force has had some input into this. According to one survey Camden was in the top five public authorities in Europe for sustainable purchasing. But we would like to go a step further.

The Slovenian government, as part of their recent six month presidency of the EU, hosted a conference on sustainable consumption and production. Nearly one hundred experts representing governments, research institutions, civil society, business and international organisations participated. One of the key recommendations was an EU Directive on green public procurement (GPP) to make responsible purchasing mandatory for all public authorities. By responsible it meant low-carbon, fair trade, and from sustainable resources. (‘Time for Action — Towards Sustainable Consumption and Production in Europe‘ 27–29 September 2007, Ljubljana, Slovenia.)

In the past EU single market rules have proved to be the biggest obstacle to more sustainable purchasing. Now EU level thinking is moving in our direction. We believe it is time to take a risk and push for enhanced sustainability criteria in all our purchasing, especially food.

Air freighting is a fraught subject. Aviation is only 3% of global carbon emissions (5% in the UK) but it is one of the fastest growing sectors and there is no technological solution on the horizon to the problem of jet engines. It’s not just the carbon dioxide, although that’s bad enough. The vapour trails that aeroplanes create make their total greenhouse effect 2.7 times worse that the carbon emissions alone.

Reducing the carbon footprint of our food is our goal. That will usually mean less food from far off places, fewer out of season foods, no airfreighted produce, fewer processed foods, less packaging and less waste.

Most of all it will mean less meat and dairy. In 2006 the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimated the carbon emissions associated with the livestock industry to be 18% of global emissions. That’s partly because cows burp methane (and cows in the industrialised meat industry that are fed chemical feed cake burp more methane than those that eat grass), but also because of the fossil fuels that are used to grow grain to feed to cattle, to make chemical feed cake for cattle to eat, to pump water for cattle to drink, to refrigerate meat, to transport refrigerated meat, and to sell meat in supermarkets in open fridges and freezers.

Of course some meat production creates higher greenhouse gases than others. If you eat meat products from grass fed cattle from your local farm, then the associated greenhouse gases are likely to be lower than those of the industrialised global meat industry. A recent Cornell University study concluded that animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil fuel energy as production of a comparable amount of plant protein. It would be a far better use of resources if we humans simply ate some of the vegetable protein directly.

The government’s own website says: “the production of meat and dairy products has a much bigger effect on climate change and other environmental impacts than that of most grains, pulses and outdoor fruit and vegetables.”

On the health aspects we have known for some time now that what’s come to be known as the Western Diet – large amounts of meat and dairy – is a key factor in the obesity epidemic (particularly when the meat is fried). On present trends half of all British children will be clinically obese by 2020 because they eat too many poor quality burgers and other junk food, and because they do not do enough exercise. To cut down on fat the Food Standards Agency website recommends “using smaller quantities of meat in dishes and more vegetables, pulses and starchy foods.”

There are other health issues to consider as well as obesity. A recent report by the World Cancer Research Fund argued that eating red meat and processed meat are “convincing or probable causes of some cancers.” The largest ever epidemiological study of older women – the Harvard Nurses Study – concluded that women drinking two glasses of whole milk a day had 67% more risk of heart disease than those drinking no whole milk.

Vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts, grains and pulses can provide all the protein, vitamins and nutrients that humans need. Indeed for most of their existence the human race has primarily lived off this sort of diet. It is only in the last 50 years that we have massively increased the quantity of meat and dairy we consume. And of course we now eat poor quality meat, often stuffed with antibiotics, growth promoters and other chemicals, and we prepare it badly as well, usually by frying it. There is just no getting away from it – large quantities of cheese burgers and pepperoni pizzas are simply not good for you. That is one of the main reasons why in 1990 the World Health Organisation recommended a change in agricultural practices away from meat and dairy and towards plant foods.

George Monbiot recently pointed out that hunger is fast becoming another reason why we should eat less meat and dairy. The cost of food has rocketed around the world because oil prices are at all-time highs and because of the mad dash to biofuels. Many countries have seen food riots in recent months and have cut back on food exports. In April of this year supermarkets in the United States were reported to be actually rationing rice purchases!

Cllr Alexis Rowell represents Belsize ward on the London Borough of Camden where he is Chair of the all-party Camden Council Sustainability Task Force.

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  • Excellent article, and so true – well done to Camden!

  • I like meat. Sorry.

  • The concept of food miles is quite simplistic. Shipping in apples from New Zealand is more efficient than cold-storing local apples for months, for example. There’s also the high energy cost of cooking the food, which is no doubt higher for traditional British dishes like stews and casseroles.

    Being vegetarian or eating locally are admirable moral choices, but they should be left up to the individual as much as possible.

  • I’m a vegetarian. I think even if people don’t want to give up meat, they should be encouraged to eat less. It’s actually surprisingly easy. Then one day you might wake up and decide to be a fully-fledged vegetarian 🙂

  • David Morton 5th May '08 - 11:42am

    Excellent Article. Thank you for posting it. You did well on the Today programme a few months ago on this subject.

  • Just from a genetic standpoint our dentition indicates we should and have in fact been eating meat for thousands of years.

    In my opinion it is only a sound medical choice for someone if there have a lush variety in diet together with supplements of omega oils. Which is not an option for many people on ordinary incomes around the world.

    Animal fat also acts as a natural antidepressant.

    Meat in ‘normal’ dosages is beneficial,

  • “Just from a genetic standpoint our dentition indicates we should and have in fact been eating meat for thousands of years.”

    Yes. But we haven’t been eating gigantic slabs of factory-farmed meat every day. In human history, people tended not to be vegetarian but they only ate meat rarely, because it was only rarely that they were able to.

    Additionally, meat was at a higher standard even than the free range offerings of today, and was much healthier: more protein, less fat. For about 200-300 years, farmers have been trying to knock out more and more meat at the expense of quality. Witness the factory farming and the near-extinction of “rare breeds”.

    So it isn’t natural or healthy to eat fry-ups, steaks and what have you every day like a lot of people do. People don’t seem to understand the connection between poor diet and physical and mental ill health. I think there should be better education.

  • it is not however the eating of meat that is the problem. It is the farming of it together with the cooking of it.

    If cooked correctly meat is healthy.

  • Oh btw, I eat meat about twice a week.

  • Mund, while I myself don’t eat meat or fish, I think you’re right in what you say.

    But a lot of meat eaters go overboard and cause themselves ill health.

  • I completely agree.

  • Norman Scott 5th May '08 - 6:53pm

    If you have a global carbon price, then the higher carbon impact of meat will be reflected in the price which in turn will mean people eat less. Wanting a global carbon price is already party policy I believe.

    This argument though does give vegetarians another reason to be even more insufferably smug than they already are.

  • I don’t think the majority of vegetarians are smug. The real problem is those meat-eaters, especially the right-wing ones, who sneer at vegetarianism and environmentalism. I’ve got no idea what their problem is, but they seem really annoyed and shouty 🙂

  • Over 30 billion animals are slaughtered each year and converted into food stuffs and other animal based products. Approximately 13% of the world’s carbon emissions are created by this process as oppossed to the 3% generated by air travel.

    A change in dietary habits resulting from a mere 5% of the world’s population choosing to eat less meat rather than completely converting to vegetarianism would serve both to significantly reduce carbon emissions and drive down food prices.

  • Yes, we have been seeing in recent months that the have-it-all petrolhead lifestyle, which assumes that resources are infinite & because we want things we should be able to, and it is possible to, go out & grab them with no consequences, is unsustainable.

    The party is over. We can’t afford not to go green, to carry on burying our heads in the sand, assuming that more will always be there. This kind of irresponsibility brought us the credit crunch, only a return to living within our means & not living wantonly will end it.

  • henley constituent 6th Jul '08 - 11:50am

    Life expectancies continue to rise in western countries. There is little indication that any of the food scares we read in the papers are true, stories are frequently contradicted the next week, and yet we continue to live longer. I doubt whether any normal food not eaten to absurd excess is going to do much harm to the consumer. If red meat killed you, wouldn’t there be some solid proof? Ditto for chemicals, cell phones, power lines, whatever.
    There’s a human need to be scared and to think you can control the dangers of everyday life by living right. For many there’s a suspicion of the way we live in the modern world, and a belief that humans are basically bad, a kind of original sin theory.

    People who propose the kinds of things in the article should be asked to explain the totality of the kind of life they espouse, the changes would go further than reading the packets of mange-tout in the supermarket to see how many food miles they have racked up.

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