Go veggie to ‘save the planet’? Burger off!

The Stern-endorsed campaign to stop people eating meat shows that greens have no solutions for society beyond launching wars on enjoyment.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

‘Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.’ (1)

In an interview with The Times (London) this week, Lord Nicholas Stern became the latest high-profile proponent of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to suggest that avoiding meat would help to ‘save the planet’. In September 2008, Rachendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), delivered a lecture in London on meat consumption and climate change, arguing that producing meat had a bigger impact on global temperatures than transport (2).

The idea of going veggie for the planet has acquired the status of common sense. People might not want to do it, but few seem to disagree that eating less or no meat would protect the environment. In June this year, ex-Beatle and long-standing vegetarian Paul McCartney helped to launch Meat-Free Mondays: ‘Having one designated meat-free day a week is actually a meaningful change that everyone can make, that goes to the heart of several important political, environmental and ethical issues all at once’, he said (3). In spiked’s current online debate, What’s the Future of Food?, animal rights philosopher Peter Singer and restaurateur Henry Dimbleby both make the case for eating less meat, or giving it up altogether, to help prevent climate change (4).

But simply replacing meat with vegetarian food isn’t the environmental good it is presented to be. The major source of greenhouse gas emissions specific to meat production is the burping of methane by ruminant animals, particularly beef cattle. This is just a normal part of their digestive process. Methane is regarded as a more ‘powerful’ greenhouse gas because each extra molecule of it in the atmosphere has 25 times the ‘heat trapping’ effect of a molecule of carbon dioxide.

Yet while cattle merrily burp methane in large quantities, chickens do not, while other meat-producing animals, such as pigs, produce some methane but not nearly as much as cows. As a handy graphic on the BBC News website shows, while beef cattle in the developed world produce 120kg of methane per animal per year, the figure is just 8kg for sheep and 1.5kg for pigs. On that basis, simply switching to different kinds of meat might have a substantial impact without any need to go veggie. As the BBC article also points out, most of the cattle in the world aren’t reared for meat anyway; they’re reared as working animals (5).

The other major source of greenhouse gases in meat production is from manure, particularly the lakes of slurry generated by industrial feedlots. But it wouldn’t take much to stick a processing plant on the side of such facilities to convert that slurry into usable ‘natural’ gas for heating. And organic farmers, who eschew artificial fertiliser, would be lost without the production of manure by grass-munching animals.

There is also the small matter of what we would do if we didn’t eat meat. We would have to produce crops to replace the food, particularly the protein, supplied by meat. But one of the advantages of meat is that it can be produced on land that isn’t suitable for growing crops. Try growing wheat on a Welsh hillside and you start to understand why sheep are so useful. Animals also eat a lot of by-products of food production that cannot be consumed by humans, like vegetable pulp, hop residues and straw. Pigs, famously, will eat anything.

If we didn’t eat meat, we would have to find substitutes for animal by-products like leather, wool and gelatine. Producing substitutes for the food and other things we currently get from farming livestock would generate substantial greenhouse gas emissions in itself. Even if people went vegetarian, they would probably start eating other animal products like cheese and eggs in greater quantities, thus reducing the alleged ‘benefits’ to the planet of rejecting meat – the animals would still be around, still producing food. Only if the world went vegan would there be a really noticeable effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

The figure that Stern, Pachauri and others rely on to illustrate the dramatic effect of meat-eating comes from a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report from 2006, which suggested that meat consumption produced 18 per cent of net global greenhouse gas emissions. However, the FAO was looking at all the emissions associated with meat production, not just ones directly from animals, and a sizeable chunk of the 18 per cent figure was from the clearing of tropical rainforest and the consequent release of carbon dioxide. A report from the University of Surrey suggested a rather lower figure, eight per cent, for meat production in the UK, where farmland was cleared of trees long ago.

So, to summarise: the claim that giving up meat will avoid huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions is almost certainly wrong. We could only know for certain if we had a firm idea of the emissions a vegetarian world would generate. If we all became vegans, we might save some emissions, but whether that would have any significant effect on global temperatures is far from certain. What is certain is that such a world would be populated by thinner, more flatulent people, pressurised by emotional and environmental blackmail into limiting their food intake for the benefit of Mother Earth despite a lack of evidence that they will have any impact. That doesn’t sound healthy to me.

What Stern’s declaration does illustrate, however, is the way in which environmentalists seem blind to the idea of solving problems in any other way than by encouraging or forcing people to change our personal habits. Eating meat is seen as a pointless luxury despoiling the planet. But it is no accident that as countries get richer, they eat more meat. Meat is highly prized as it is nutritious and flavoursome. If meat production is shown to be a problem, the answer is surely to find new ways to produce it rather than to guilt-trip people into giving up meat altogether. Already, cattle breeders are looking at producing animals that generate fewer methane emissions, and animal feed producers are experimenting with mixes that reduce all that cow burping.

Exactly the same green outlook applies in the case of travel. According to environmentalists, air travel is screwing up the planet. Their imaginative answer is to stop travelling. On this dim-witted basis, we could save the equivalent of the UK’s annual carbon dioxide emissions if the world’s population just stopped breathing (6). Yet even if we accept the argument that carbon emissions from jets are a problem, it should hardly be beyond the wit of humanity over the next few decades to find viable alternative ways to power aircraft so that we can fly with a clean conscience. Indeed, new biofuels are being developed at present using algae that have the potential to be carbon-neutral without the current problem of using valuable cropland.

But never mind innovation and problem-solving. The truth is that eating meat, jetting around the globe and so on do not fit in with the hairshirt mentality of environmentalists, either the radical ones or the ones in officialdom. For greens, humanity should be apologising for its very existence and doing everything in its power to make the smallest possible impact on the Earth. If the treehuggers want to stay at home eating lentils and composting, that’s up to them; different strokes for different folks, as they say. However, when the leading lights of the climate change industry like Stern try to tell us that we’ve got to change our wicked ways – often on the basis of flimsy or overblown evidence – there’s only one thing to say: burger off.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

spiked launched a debate on the Future of Food. Rob Lyons revealed the truth about organic food. Rob Johnston had no beef with cloned animals, while James Panton refused to join the eco-veggies. Justine Brian defended cheap chicken. Ethan Greenhart debated the ethics of farming cows. Or read more at spiked issue Food.

(1) Climate chief Lord Stern: give up meat to save the planet, The Times, 27 October 2009

(2) See Why I’ve got a beef with going vegetarian, by James Panton

(3) Paul McCartney backs ‘Meat Free Monday’ to cut carbon emissions, Guardian, 15 June 2009

(4) What’s the Future of Food?

(5) The methane makers, BBC News, 28 October 2009

(6) For a back-of-a-fag-packet calculation of how much CO2 humans breathe out, see Home Planet, BBC

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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