Cut meat, cut carbon? Agri-environment debate more complex, say experts
The environmental arguments for eating less meat are pretty clear-cut - less livestock means less deforestation, less water use and less greenhouse gas emissions.
But, according to the executive director of the Food Ethics Council, it’s a more complex problem than the soundbites suggest.
Speaking at a Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum seminar on Tuesday, Dr Tom MacMillan outlined how the practicalities of cutting our environmental impact by cutting down on meat are far from straightforward.
“When people have floated the idea that we should eat less meat, they’ve met a very hostile response,” he said.
It’s a sensitive issue, he said, and even those politicians who can see a need to curb consumption feel hamstrung and question whether they have a mandate from their constituents to drive down meat eating.
“The idea that eating less meat and dairy might be more sustainable has been on Defra’s radar since at least 2005 but I think it’s fair to say it’s languished there a bit,” said Dr MacMillan.
“There’s concern about the public reaction…and nobody’s comfortable talking about food consumption.”
Stopping eating meat tomorrow as a nation would also cause ripples around the world, he said, and may simply displace the problems.
“In a world where we eat less meat it would be a lot easier to meet our commitments to the environment, animal welfare and social justice,” he said.
“But if we simply cut back we might end up causing as much harm as good.”
Some of the most climate-friendly forms of farming, he said, require the input of livestock in the form of fertilising dung, grazing and other less-intensive land management techniques.
The Food Ethics Council has been working with policy makers and the food production sector to look at the best way to actually address the problem, and move from entrenched positions to a dialogue that could make progress towards more sustainable levels of meat consumption without causing too many knock-on effects.
The council’s report Livestock Consumption and Climate Change: A Framework for Dialogue, produced with the WWF, puts forward 27 potential interventions that could tackle the problem, from publicity campaigns seeking to shift consumer behaviour to fiscal measures that take into account the emissions associated with animal products.
“Producing food more efficiently isn’t enough,” said Dr MacMillan.
“Gains in efficiency will be outstripped by increases in global consumption.”