Why I’ve got a beef with going vegetarian

After policing how we shop, holiday and dispose of waste, now environmental bigwigs want to turn us into eco-veggies.

James Panton

Topics Science & Tech

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Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has recommended that we all switch to a vegetarian diet to help stop climate change. His statement exemplifies the politicised nature of the IPCC and its moralising message for humanity.

On Monday evening in London, Pachauri delivered a much-previewed lecture titled ‘Global Warning: the impact of meat production and consumption on climate change’, at an event organised by the animal welfare campaign group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). He argued that global meat production produces more greenhouse gases than transport. ‘The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions’, he told the BBC before the lecture (1). He proposed that we should all begin by giving up meat for one day per week, and then reduce our meat consumption even further.

Although he said he ‘is not in favour of mandating things like this’, Pachauri believes that the introduction of a global carbon price, which would lead to a rise in the cost of meat, might help achieve the desired cut in global meat consumption (2). That sounds like a mandate for vegetarianism to me. Pachauri’s friends at CIWF are clearer on the issue. CIWF ambassador Joyce D’Silva told the BBC that ‘the climate change angle could be quite persuasive’, presumably in achieving the organisation’s goal of reducing industrialised meat production; she also said she ‘would like governments to set targets for reduction in meat production and consumption’, something that should be done at ‘a global level as part of a negotiated climate change treaty’ (3).

At first, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, I was utterly bemused by these arguments. Over the past few years, we have all got used to being hectored by the environmental lobby about the ‘small sacrifices’ we should make to our daily routine in order to reduce our carbon footprint: take public transport, think about ‘holidaying at home’, don’t leave your TVs and computers on standby, wash your clothes at a lower temperature, and so on. But surely things are getting surreal when the head of the UN’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning climate science project starts demanding that we should all turn veggie?

This seems to be another illustration of the fact that the IPCC is not the impartial body of experts it purports to be. According to its website, the mandated role of the IPPC is to ‘assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic literature produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change, its observed and projected impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. IPCC reports should be neutral with respect to policy.’ (4)

Yet as Tony Gilland pointed out on spiked last year, the IPPC is not ‘a straightforward scientific body’, but a ‘deeply political organisation that was born out of disenchantment with progress’ (5). When the chair of the IPCC, himself a vegetarian, joins forces with an animal rights campaign group whose raison d’être is to bring an end to industrialised ‘factory’ farming, the idea of policy ‘impartiality’ has been thrown out of the window.

Don’t get me wrong: I think ‘impartiality’ can often be overrated. I have nothing against Pachauri addressing an animal rights group, and he is quite within his rights to draw his own conclusions, based on his own worldview, from the scientific data about climate change. But given his position, his proposals have inevitably been seen, not as personal views, but as policies dictated by the scientific evidence. This blurs the line between science and policy. There is an increasing tendency to make this illegitimate causal connection between scientific or statistical data and policy response.

In a radio debate I took part in earlier this week, I suggested that the ‘facts’ about the issue were being skewed towards the pre-determined conclusion that cutting back human consumption (in this case, meat consumption) was the only way forward. My green opponent responded by declaring that such a conclusion is indisputable when you consider Pachauri’s factual analysis: that livestock produces 18 per cent of greenhouse gases. I was told that these facts had been established by the FAO – experts in the field, no less – and on the basis of these facts, the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be if we all cut back on our consumption of meat (6).

This mistakes the role that scientific ‘facts’ can play in making political decisions about how we should organise society. What is happening in the environment is a scientific question where objective answers are possible (even if our level of understanding of climate science is less developed at the moment than we might like it to be); the question of how we respond to that evidence, however, is based upon political arguments and value judgements.

The proposal that we should all become (at least part-time) vegetarians is a political, not a scientific, question. The freedom to choose to eat meat when we please, and the tremendous improvements in the efficiency of livestock production that freedom is based on, is a very good thing. It is the result of a society that is so economically productive and technologically efficient that meat can be produced cheaply. This stands in contrast to large areas of the under-developed world where poverty makes vegetarianism, to all intents and purposes, mandatory – especially where animals are needed to do work rather than provide food.

An FAO report published last year noted that meat consumption has increased in the developing world from three per cent to seven per cent of total kilocalories consumed between the early 1960s and the 2000s (7). This is very good news. Meat has often been highly prized both for its flavour and its nutritional value, so it’s a good thing that people have greater access to it. The proportion of meat making up average diets in the developing world could be increased yet further with the expansion and improvement of industrialised livestock farming and production – something that animal rights groups and environmental campaigners would no doubt oppose.

As it happens, the ‘facts’ on which Pachauri based his argument are not as straightforward as people think. The factoid that livestock production contributes 18 per cent of the total potential warming effect of greenhouse gas emissions (partly because all that methane has 23 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide) comes from an FAO report published in November 2006. It has been cited frequently by environmental lobby groups. It is a figure that compares unfavourably with the 13 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions estimated to be the result of global transportation, which for the past couple of years has been the bogeyman of the environmental lobby (8).

The news that cows burp and fart methane is not a great scientific breakthrough; high-school biology, rather than the UN’s authority on climate change, could tell us that. But the 18 per cent figure does seem remarkable. The problem, however, is that this figure is based upon calculating emissions from every aspect of the meat production process – not just animal flatulence, but deforestation to make room for grazing pastures, the production and transportation of fertilisers that are used in the production of animal feeds, the burning of fossil fuels in farm vehicles, and food transportation. As one commentator has pointed out, a third of that 18 per cent figure is drawn from estimates about the emissions caused by deforestation of the Amazon, which produces one per cent of the world’s beef. This means that the remainder of the world’s livestock production is responsible for around 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions (9).

If we then turn to look at UK livestock production, figures suggest that in the UK methane emissions from farms have fallen by 13 per cent since 1990 (10), while the estimate for the share of UK emissions from meat and dairy farms is around eight per cent (11).

So even if we accept that reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be our number one priority, and that the best way to do this is by changing our individual consumption patterns, it’s not clear that meat production is as much of a devil as Pachauri suggests. And it’s certainly not clear that if everyone in the UK went vegetarian one day per week the result would be a huge drop in greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not at all obvious that vegetarianism is, as Pachauri claims, ‘clearly the most attractive opportunity’.

And since we’ve introduced dairy farms into the equation, let’s not forget that if we’re worried about the methane produced from livestock, then swapping a diet rich in meat for a diet rich in milk and dairy produce is not the answer. Dairy cows fart just as much as cows reared for their beef (12). To cut back on methane emissions we would need to cut back on both meat and dairy, which is to say, we would have to become vegans.

In consistently disguising their political proposals behind pseudoscience, and pretending that the data dictates the policy, the environmental lobby not only demonstrates a remarkable lack of belief in scientific innovation – it also exposes its own dearth of political imagination. And when a senior figure at the IPCC starts proposing vegetarianism as ‘the most attractive opportunity’ in the attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, an unholy alliance is achieved: the petty authoritarian instincts behind the politics of behaviour meet the miserabilist, anti-modernist instincts of the environmental lobby.

James Panton is lecturer in politics at St John’s College, Oxford, co-founder of the Manifesto Club and co-editor of Science versus Superstition: the Case for a New Scientific Enlightenment. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Rob Johnston had no beef with cloned animals. Rob Lyons revealed the truth about organic food. Justine Brian defended cheap chicken. Ethan Greenhart debated the ethics of farming cows. Or read more at spiked issue Food.

(1) Shun meat, says UN climate chief, 7 September 2008, BBC News

(2) Shun meat, says UN climate chief, 7 September 2008, BBC News

(3) Shun meat, says UN climate chief, 7 September 2008, BBC News

(4) IPCC

(5) Digging up the roots of the IPCC, by Tony Gilland

(6) Debate on the Jeremy Vine Show, BBC Radio 2, 12.30pm, 9 September 2008

(7) Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations report: The State of Food and Agriculture, FAO Agriculture Series No. 38, Rome, 2007

(8) UN says eat less meat to curb global warming, Observer, 7 September 2008

(9) Check emissions figures first, Western Mail, 9 September 2008

(10) Shun meat, says UN climate chief, 7 September 2008, BBC News

(11) Check emissions figures first, Western Mail, 9 September 2008

(12) UN says eat less meat to curb global warming, Observer, 7 September 2008

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Topics Science & Tech


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