Is Eating Meat Really Bad For The Environment?
Alex Heffron responded to my post on the shop at Gazegill Farm and my ruminations about eating meat with a post which I thought was both intellectually challenging and a refreshing defence of the conscientious meat eater. I invited him to expand further with a guest blog…….
There is currently a pervading belief that eating meat is de facto bad for the environment, as if the argument has been definitively decided. Subsequently those meat-eaters who do care about the environment can often feel a pang of guilt, and sometimes may wish to conceal their ‘sinful’ meat-eating habits from their ever increasing list of vegetarian and vegan friends for fear of judgement and reproach.
It’s not without cause that people are turning to vegetarianism and veganism as a way of caring for the environment. It’s an understandable reaction. But the problem with this position is that it lacks the necessary nuances. It’s not as simple as eating meat is bad and going veggie is better. There’s more to it than that.
Before going any further, I would agree that many people in Western countries eat far too much meat — and this is really the root of the argument that eating meat is bad — it’s the sheer scale of meat that people in some countries are eating. The english-speaking countries it seems are the worst perpertrators. Of course I am appalled at the way many animals are treated. I think we waste far too much food, and that we should be eating all of the animal and not throwing away perfectly good meat. All of that should go without saying.
I also think it is wrong to be grain-feeding ruminants (with their associated environmental cost) — though let’s keep in perspective that most ruminants are largely grass fed for most of their lives in the UK. And let us also bear in mind that much of the grain eaten by animals is not edible by humans. Though still I would advocate for a grass-fed only system.
But none of that means that eating meat is somehow evil and the cause of all our environmental problems. It means that the meat we produce needs reform (poultry being an obvious example in the UK — being kept in a cage or a barn for its life should not be ok). As someone who was once a vegetarian (longest period of 12 months, but on and off for a few years) I have now come to the conclusion that I can do more good by supporting ethical meat production than I can by boycotting meat altogether (plus like many others I feel healthier for eating meat). Others may disagree, and that’s their prerogative, but I believe that’s the best way to reform the meat industry.
What I reject is the latest wave that attempts to strong-arm meat-eaters into being non meat-eaters by claiming a supposed moral high ground. Whether one eats meat is a personal choice, and a choice than can be the result of many factors.
I appreciate that many people go veggie or vegan not only because of issues with animal welfare but because they want to do their bit for climate change. Which of course is an important issue. However, here too some attention to detail and context is required. I don’t buy into the notion that cows are the ultimate cause of climate change as is sometimes put forward these days by the more extreme end of things, particularly with so-called documentaries such as cowspiracy. Are some elements of the cattle industry contributing to climate change? Absolutely. Does that mean all of the industry is? Absolutely not. And the opposite isn’t automatically better. Are elements of vegetable and grain production contributing to climate change? Absolutely. Does that mean all grain and vegetable production is contributing to climate change? Absolutely not. (I mean to an extent here we can’t get away from the notion that producing any food produces some GHGs, particularly in our industrial system — which is why I’m an advocate of small and local — but it’s about the extent to which it does. After all we have to eat but that shouldn’t come at a cost to our eco-systems.)
This simplistic approach also overlooks the fact that there are systems of grazing animals in development that are proving you can build better pastures without the use of chemicals, whilst simultaneously needing less land. More importantly this way of grazing animals can build soil — meaning it can sequester carbon.
So I’m tired of the claims that in order to care for the environment you must go veggie or vegan. Tired of it because it ignores the importance of sustainability. The fact is eating meat doesn’t have to mean deforestation, climate change and fattening up the wealthy at the expense of the starving. It’s merely an extreme response to the current predicament that we’re in that says becuase things are currently out of balance one way, we must swing drastically the other. ‘We eat too much meat, therefore we mustn’t eat meat at all in order to compensate’, ignoring the myriad of options in the middle for developing a diet that is balanced, and recognising the importance of animals in agriculture. The attitude of ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ doesn’t help.
I personally don’t see how we can sustainably feed the world’s population without the essential services animals provide (their meat is just one of their ‘outputs’ — how do we replace everything else they provide for us?), so I believe it is unfair to castigate meat eaters (and perhaps there is more than a little projection of their own frustration going on here) and to either explicitly or implicitly say that in order to care for the environment you mustn’t eat meat.
I know of vegans in the permaculture world running sustainable market gardens and farms without the use of animals, (i.e. they are building and maintaining fertile soil and not overly relying on external inputs), but I’m skeptical of whether we can ultimately expect to feed the world sustainably this way — though that doesn’t detract from the potential such systems have. And it shouldn’t be automatically assumed that those systems are better than animal systems. Also we should factor in too just how depleted and eroded many soils are (largely the result of the unsustainable annual crop farming techniques of the last 50 years that have decimated the world’s topsoil) and whether without animals they can be realistically regenerated at all, at least in the beginning stages.
It should be fine that we can disagree without trying to force the opposing viewpoint to submit, and I don’t think it has to be one way or the other. I think a healthy society can be composed of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, veggies and vegans. After all, diversity is considered a fundamental key to healthy, thriving eco-systems, and a diversity of approaches and diets gives us a better chance of finding a more sustainable future — because we’re deluded if we think we have the absolute, and only answer. That’s purely the hubris of our time talking. And to then impose that hubris on others is to risk the wrath of Nemesis.
To oversimplify the argument of what is the most sustainable diet and system of food production and reduce it to eating animals is categorically bad for the environment, is incorrect and missing several key points in my opinion. Further than that, to then automatically assume that a meat-free diet is better for the environment is also potentially untrue — like with most things the devil is in the details. It would take a book to cover all of the points — and many others have done so. But the following are some of the key points that have to be considered:
– How do we build and maintain soil fertility sustainably without animal manure on a scale large enough to feed enough people?
– Cows sequester carbon as well as emitting it. The soil is a major carbon sink after all and holistically managed cows build soil. (unfortunately more scientific evidence is needed ascertain just how much carbon they sequester). Further, there is a symbiotic relationship between cows and a soil-based prokaryote called methanotrophs that actually metabolise a portion of the methane that cows emit, reducing their GHG effect. This is rarely taken into account, and cows that are fed a grass-only diet, actually help to create an environment where methanotrophs can thrive.
– Fossil Fuel Emissions — The typical non meat-eater’s diet includes annual crops that take a large amount of nutrients. If that soil fertility isn’t built by animals how else is it built? If chemicals are used to provide the fertility, as is often the case currently, then those chemicals have their own fossil fuel footprint to consider. (According to Organic Centre Wales — 1 ton of chemical fertiliser = 1.5 tons of oil (more than 1000L) – equal to what just 20 chickens can create over a one year period.)
– Food sovereignty — can the UK adequately grow enough food to meet the needs of its population without the aid of animals? Where do those calories and nutrients come from? Many non meat-eaters, like meat-eaters, eat a wide range of exotic foods that have to be shipped across the world, but take away the calories and nutrients that meat, eggs and dairy provide, where do non-meat eaters get those calories and nutrients from in a climate such as the UK’s?
– Food Miles — following on from the above point, what are the food miles of all that tofu and pulses (often used as a meat replacement) that have to be imported from afar? (granted not all non meat-eaters rely heavily on soya and pulses, but many do and it’s a considerable consideration)
– What do we do with the upland regions of the UK where animals can be grazed but annual crops not grown easily? If we return these areas to wilderness will there be enough land for meeting the country’s needs?
– Annual crops that are dependant on chemical fertilisers and pesticides in themselves lead to the destruction of eco-systems and therefore directly and indirectly contribute to the killing of animals.
– If you want to know that your meat has been raised ethically then get to know a local farmer and buy direct from them — and if possible buy grass-fed-only beef.
– Pigs and chickens (when reared for yourself and not for commercial sale due to fairly recent law changes) can be fed kitchen scraps — this means turning what would be waste food into more food — meat and eggs.
– Ruminants for example have the potential to digest food that we can’t digest — the amount of grain animals eat is often discussed, but what isn’t often discused is that only a fraction of the grains they eat are edible by humans. Further there are many, many forage crops ruminants can eat that we cannot — in effect turning food we can’t eat into food we can eat whilst simultaneously providing many other services and outputs.
– A silvopasture (trees and animals integrated) system can provide for a varied diet, whilst sequestering large amounts of carbon. The animals can graze the space between the trees, making full use of the space — whilst the trees can provide human food, animal food, timber, fibre or firewood, whilst simultaneously providing habitat and biodiversity. Surely that’s a better system than mass monoculture crops covering dozens, if not hundreds of miles, where ecosystems cannot be sustained?
– The growing of annual crops (some to feed animals, some to feed humans) is contributing to the ‘dustbowl’ effect in many drier parts of the world such as the American Midwest. Carefully managed pastures with animals fed entirely grass are a proven way of combating this, whilst not adding to unnecessary desertification — whether that crop is feeding animals or humans. Well managed pasture can play a significant part in the regeneration of the environment.
For a sensible discussion of some of the roles animals can play in a small-scale, local, sustainable system this short piece is worth a read.
This is not about meat eaters vs non meat-eaters — and who’s better — we need to get away from this unhelpful, divisive dualistic debate. The above points I offer as a counter-balance to the automatic assumption that eating meat is worse than not eating meat. I think there are a myriad of factors to consider, the above just being some of them.
These are just some of the issues that come to mind. There is no simple, ‘right’ answer. We have a food system that is immensely complex and it’s the entire system that needs reforming. It’s not the animals per se that are causing climate change, it’s our sometimes poor management of them and undervaluing of their role in the entire system.
We each have our own opinions about whether it is ethical to eat animals, but I don’t see whether we can really debate whether animals should be involved in agriculture at all. What we should be discussing is what is the best way to make maximal use of them (so that meat becomes a by-product, not the goal of animal farming) whilst providing for maximal welfare. That would be something closer to sustainability.
About The Man
Alex quit the madness of London 18 months ago and is soon to start his own small farm with his fiancée in West Wales where they plan to utilise permaculture design principles to farm ‘a bit of everything.’ He is interested in the sustainable production of organic food and believes in a localised food system of small farms. He is also passionate about the re-building of local folk culture. He enjoys political discussions, rugby and walking up mountains. You can read more of his ramblings at https://medium.com/@AlexHeffron88