can a change in diet make a positive change in the environment?
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The Environmental angle – the single most effective action an individual can take
Environmentally speaking, the world is not in a great place right now. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – one of the main contributors to climate change – is continuing to rise past levels last seen millions of years ago. This, when combined with other greenhouse gases, has triggered extreme climate events across the world. For example seven of the ten hottest years on record took place in the last decade.
Things don’t look so great on land either. In August 2019 the International Panel on Climate Change released a report warning of the effect that agriculture and other human activity is having on soil, which is a major carbon sink alongside forests and the oceans. Deforestation, land degradation and agriculture are all having a devastating impact on land, the report said.
We are also eating way too much meat. In the UK for example a 2015 report by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the most recent study to show exactly how much meat we’re eating. On average, people in the UK eat around 929 grams of meat each week, and a further 146 grams of fish. Nearly a quarter of that weekly meat intake is made up of poultry, while beef and veal is the next most popular – we chomp our way through an average of 102 grams of beef every week, without factoring in ready meals or heavily processed beef.
The Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board estimates that the average UK meat consumption was even higher than this at 79 kilograms per person in 2016 – or about 1.5kg per week. So whichever way you cut it, we’re definitely eating a lot of meat. In 2014, the global average meat consumption was 43kg per person with some countries – such as Nigeria, Tanzania and Ethiopia – nearer to only 10kg of meat per person per year.
Environmentally speaking the problem with eating all this meat is that animal products – and especially beef – have an outsized impact on the planet. The most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet published in the journal Science concludes that avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.
The study of 40,000 farms in 119 countries found that although livestock provide just 18 per cent of the calories we eat globally, farming them uses 83 per cent of all farmland. Unlike plants, when you calculate livestock’s environmental impact you also have to take into account all the crops grown to feed animals. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) an estimated 33 per cent of all croplands are used to grow livestock feed.
According to Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research for the Science journal study above: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” going further he also states that “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The study also revealed a huge variability between different ways of producing the same food. For example, beef cattle raised on deforested land result in 12 times more greenhouse gases and use 50 times more land than those grazing rich natural pasture. But the comparison of beef with plant protein such as peas is stark, with even the lowest impact beef responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and 36 times more land.
The studies above come from reputable global organisations such as ‘Science, the UN FAO and the ‘International panel on climate change’ and the conclusions they provide are robust against charges of confirmation bias or vested interests. The paucity of reliable unbiased reporting raises one of the central issues in the challenge ordinary people face when making personal nutrition choices. When you consider the scale of the agro-food industry globally, the vast resources available and the lobbying and persuasive power at hand it is easy to see how the average Joe can be manipulated into toeing the party line. In 2015 for example, according to the US Center for Responsive Politics, processed food manufacturers spent $32 million on lobbying while the fruit and vegetable industry spent a mere $3.7 million. Much like Big Tobacco in the 60’s and 70’s there is a lot at stake for ensuring that the volume of scientific backed studies supporting their cause is at least enough to impair the signal of reason and at best to cripple logical debate at source thus changing the narrative to one of persuasion through advertising. If our health choices are not informed then in a profit maximisation industry with relatively low margins the products we consume will quickly suffer a race to the bottom in terms of quality and health outcomes.