I have been told more than once that “following the science” means persuading the world to give up eating meat. It’s a proposition that many have swallowed apparently without chewing.
Of course, “the science” has no opinion on what we eat. It simply is a process for discovering information that we can use to inform decisions. Real-life decisions often involve trade-offs. Bad decisions tend to be ones that are focused on only one variable, in this case CO2 reduction.
So, while some may wish that the human race gives up on meat, right now, in the real world, the human race profoundly disagrees. Over the last 50 years, meat consumption has in fact gone relentlessly upwards. Over that time, production has tripled to around 340m tonnes; 80 billion animals are slaughtered each year for meat.
Taking human cultural values, meat is highly prized and desirable in most societies except where religion is a constraining factor. And, in particular, societies that are emerging from poverty significantly increase meat consumption.
This is a reflection of the value that it offers.
Firstly, on nutrition. Many researchers believe that the advent of meat-eating two million years ago was what enabled the brain of homo sapiens to grow to the size that it has. High quality nutrition and energy, able to be absorbed more efficiently by the gut, permitting system resources to go from said gut to the energy-hungry monster that is the brain.
Secondly, on status. Throughout the history of human poverty – which was the norm for all societies until the industrial revolution – meat was rarely available save for the elites. The diseases of malnutrition were rife. No wonder it was held with special reverance, and was a high priority when times were good. And no wonder therefore that the food cultures of the world will often have it at the centre of iconic and much-loved dishes that define national identity as well as those associated with festivals and celebrations.
Apples and pears
A Twitter thread titled “should you give up eating meat?” by the Economist typifies everything that’s wrong with this discussion.
First come the stacked comparisons. “Animal-based foods account for 57% of agricultural greenhouse gases, versus 29% for food from plants” and “Red meat is about 35 times as damaging to the environment as a bowl of greens, according to a study published in 2019”.
OK, but what is the nutritional balance between the two groups? These are not like-for-like food items. Telling me that a car is more damaging to the environment than a bicycle is not helpful information if I’m looking at a hundred-mile round trip.
What are the options for reducing the impact of animal-based foods? After all, if something is highly prized, you do have the option to seek to reduce its impact, rather than simply tell people to go without. It’s not the science, but your personal preference, that dictates how you answer that question.
Efficiency is possible
There is evidence that beef is produced significantly more efficiently in the US than in many other countries. Emissions from US beef production are ten to 50 times lower than in other parts of the world, and it produces around 18% of the world’s beef with just 8% of the world’s cattle. So, although not everything is transferable, there are clearly many improvements in efficiency that can be made elsewhere with existing technology.
And measures of harm are not always honestly portrayed. The quantity of water supposedly “consumed” in producing a beef burger is a case in point – 94% is rainwater (so-called “green water”). The real nature of methane contributions, significant though they are, are often presented as a multiple of CO2, which ignores its much lower lifetime in the atmosphere. None of these factors make beef low impact, but the case is not as clear cut as it may sometimes appear.
Back to that Twitter thread. After the comparisons, come the tone-deaf suggestions. “How about giving insects a try? It would undoubtedly be better for the world if people ate more bugs. They're rich in protein and more sustainable than meats like beef or pork.” My only comment is that people who think such statements are persuasive arguments for their cause should be kept away from marketing departments for the sake of their companies.
The image of environmentalism is inextricably linked to hair-shirt asceticism in the popular imagination. But businesses and governments wanting to achieve as huge a step as net zero carbon need to side-step the trap of coming across as preachy as much as they can.
And the UK government did just that with its newly-launched Net Zero Strategy, which declined the opportunity to tell citizens they should cut down on meat (or indeed their foreign holidays).
None of this is to say that, for wealthy societies, a reduction in demand can’t or shouldn’t be part of the equation. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change, having looked at various options for reducing impact of agriculture, proposed a 35% reduction in ruminant meat consumption over the next 30 years. That is the sort of shift that can be achieved relatively quietly since it’s not a huge step from some of the dietary changes that have evolved naturally in the UK over the past 30 years simply from evolving tastes, trends, technology and trade.
With the consumption of ready meals having risen five-fold since the 1970s, the potential for corporations simply to reformulate meals with meat/veg blended recipes as standard is a relatively easy option, and one that many food companies have taken up.
As would be creating new “impossible burger” style products, and marketing them as attractive and superior options, not pale imitations. This is something that companies such as Tesco will have had in mind when they set a target of increasing the meat alternatives sold to consumers by 300% by 2025.
That would be taking a more realistic route, of course, rather than one that is moralistic and preachy. Moreover, research suggests that even those who fervently want to be vegan or vegetarian mostly end up failing in their attempted personal transformation within the first year – around 84% of them, according to a survey of Americans.
Ultimately, when something such as cutting meat from diets is clearly so counter-cultural and difficult, any conclusion that – of all the easy wins available to you in the early part of the journey to a net zero society – it should be your headline focus is surely misplaced.