We all know that we should regulate our consumption of meat and dairy products. It’s a common enough message from health professionals as well as environmental or animal rights campaigns. We know it, but like much health advice, we resent being told what to do and don’t pay much attention.
From a climate change point of view, the emissions from lifestock are serious. At 15% of global greenhouse gases, they’re on a par with motor transport. Demand for meat is expected to rise by 75% by 2050, so it’s going to be an even bigger obstacle to a stable climate – and that’s without the associated concerns about land, water, welfare, and rising grain prices as food is diverted to animal feed.
Despite the scale of the problem, Chatham House point out that of the 184 national emission reduction plans submitted to COP21, none of them included meat consumption. Some countries don’t need to, admittedly. As the graph below shows, meat and dairy tends to rise with income, and not everyone has a problem. Others definitely do – the highest consumers, such as the US, eat 10 times as much meat as the poorest.
That’s bad for our health as well as the climate, so we have everything to gain from bringing those levels down. Wrestling meat consumption back to the dotted line on that graph would lower cancer rates and help to tackle obesity. Health is a key factor in wellbeing, so there are real quality of life gains to be had. It’s a definitive win-win, as well as being one of the easiest ways to bring down carbon emissions.
The reason there’s so little action on meat is of course because governments don’t want to tell citizens what to eat. And rightly so. We want to be treated like adults, and it’s not the government’s job to decide what goes on our plates. Besides, Britain’s food culture is still recovering from the central planning of food during the Second World War, so we know what can happen when it gets taken to extremes.
But does that mean we can’t do anything at all? I don’t think so. Firstly, most people haven’t made the connection between meat and climate change, so there’s some awareness raising to do. That’s important if there is to be any support for more robust action. Respected voices such as nutritionists and TV chefs will help, always addressing the topic holistically as a matter of health and good living as much as an environmental issue. The invitation to better health is going to be more powerful than green guilt.
The government has many different ways to influence change at its disposal, and a lower meat diet can be addressed through the health service, education and agricultural policy. There are lots of avenues for creative change-making, before we ever get to banning and taxing and things that make people angry. The full Chatham House report, Changing climate, changing diets, has plenty to consider.
In the meantime, we can all get started on the issue irrespective of what the government does. Eating less meat can start today, and I’ll come back to that in a future post.