If someone had come along, say, twenty or thirty years ago and told us that we needed to stop eating meat in order to save the planet, most of us would probably have given them a funny look and suggested they go and lie down in a cool room. But that is exactly what the world’s most prestigious body investigating global warming and the threat it poses to humanity is arguing this week. So do we need to give up our passion for steaks and burgers and, if so, are we prepared to do it?
There’s a game you can play called ‘How Could They Have Done That!’. The simple bit is to look back in history for examples of common human behaviour that seem now almost incapable of explanation, let alone justification. So, for example, how could people who no doubt regarded themselves as intelligent, decent, responsible and civilised have engaged in human sacrifice? Or kept slaves? Or sent children up chimneys? You get the idea. But the trickier bit is to project forward and try to guess how future generations might play the same game about us. What is it that we routinely do that will cause them to shake their heads in disbelief?
Vegetarians have long provided one possible suggestion: the practice of eating meat. How could we have killed other living, sentient creatures just for the pleasure of eating them? Even more, how could we have turned this activity into a massive global industry in which, every year, billions of innocent animals are deliberately reared, often in appalling conditions, for the sole purpose of being killed so that we could eat them? How could we have done this when we knew perfectly well that a diet that excluded meat was generally better for our health? How could we have done this and risked our health by making ourselves unhealthily obese in the process? And how could we have done it and then chucked away about a quarter of this dead meat uneaten?
Put like this, ‘eating meat’ is a rather convincing move in the game that guesses how future generations will condemn us. Of course a counter-case can be made. Why pick on our generation when human beings have been eating animals since we were all hunter-gatherers living in caves? Eating meat is what humans do and probably always will. Get over it!
More recently a quite different candidate for future disbelief about our behaviour has emerged. Future generations (if there are any) will surely look back at us and ask how we could possibly have persisted in a way of life that set us on a course that risked destroying our very habitat and made our planet no longer a hospitable place for human beings to live in. How could we have gone on burning carbon and emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as if there were no tomorrow and therefore made sure there probably wouldn’t be? How could the most intelligent species that has ever lived on Earth, homosapiens, have been the only one to behave in a way that risked its own extinction? Man-made climate change is surely what the future will condemn us for perpetrating.
Again, this bid in the game could be challenged. The theory of man-made global warming is a hoax. Or there may be something in it but it’s been taken up by scare-mongers and things won’t turn out anything like as badly as they’re saying. Future generations will barely notice that we went through this panic.
Well, maybe. But what’s interesting is that this week these two examples of our alleged irresponsible, indeed indefensible, behaviour have been put together. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body of experts that advises governments around the world on climate change, argues that our penchant for eating meat is a major contributory factor in global warming, a process that risks making the planet uninhabitable for human beings, or at least for a very large number of us living in the more vulnerable parts of the world.
Its case is that agriculture accounts for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and half of this comes from animal products. In particular, the deforestation that is still rapidly taking place worldwide in order to create new pasture for the extra livestock we need to satisfy our increasing demand for meat, especially beef, is destroying one of nature’s chief means of preventing carbon being emitted into the atmosphere. Annual deforestation for pasture releases emissions equivalent to driving 600 million cars.
Furthermore, the animals themselves emit methane gas which adds to the problem. And added to this, the degradation of soil by human agricultural activity leads to a reduction in the ability of the land to absorb carbon. Soil is second only to the oceans as a store of carbon. One of the consequences is that the average temperature of the Earth’s land surface is rising even faster than the temperature of the oceans.
What is especially worrying is that as societies become more affluent they tend to eat more meat. Globalisation may have raised the living standards of billions in many developing countries but in doing so it has caused an increased demand for meat, most notably in China where most families simply could not afford meat until recently. So, left unchecked, the demand for meat is set to rise markedly, with the risk to global warming increasing in line.
We are also unbelievably profligate in our use of food. The IPCC report says that between 25% and 30% of food produced is wasted and this alone accounts for almost 10% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions.
Jim Skea, the professor of sustainable energy at Imperial College London and a co-chairman of the working group that produced the IPCC report, said: ‘A move to more balanced diets could help us adapt to and limit climate change. Some diets require more land and water and lead to higher emissions than others. Diets that are high in grains, nuts and vegetables have a lower carbon footprint than those that are high in meat.’
The IPCC is not telling us to stop eating meat. That is not their job and in any case we have to be careful what we substitute for it as some vegetarian alternatives also create environmental damage. But as Professor Peter Smith of Aberdeen University puts it, with regard to meat ‘it’s obvious that in the West we’re eating far too much’.
So the ball is now in our court. If there is a flaw in the IPCC’s argument, what is it? And if there isn’t, should we start to give up eating meat to save ourselves from the condemnation of future generations playing ‘How Could They Have Done That!’
Let us know what you think.