food sustainability

Not all meat is created equal

Just before Christmas, this unfortunate advert appeared on the side of buses in London:


I can immediately think of a dozen good reasons why you might eat a turkey and not your own dog, which makes it a bit of a rhetorical failure. And even if you agree and wouldn’t eat a turkey, that’s an argument for vegetarianism, and the ad wants you to go vegan.

It’s probably not the most effective ad PETA have ever devised, but it is in some ways representative of green messaging on meat. Our meat consumption is unsustainable in Britain and in the industrialised west generally, but drawing a red line under it may not be the best approach.

There’s no doubt that choosing a vegetarian diet can be a principled and sensible decision, and one that is undoubtedly better than the status quo. It’ll usually have lower greenhouse emissions and it’s certainly better for animal welfare. Whether it’s always the most sustainable option is up for debate. A small amount of meat in our diets allows us to use integrated farming techniques, which makes better use of land – for example, crop residues and food waste can be used to feed animals or fish. Animals can also be reared on marginal land that wouldn’t otherwise be suitable for farming.

As Simon Fairlie explains, “livestock have a role to play in nature just like plants and minerals, and therefore they have a role in a well-balanced permaculture system. That role should not be exaggerated, otherwise the system will become un-balanced, but equally it will become unbalanced if you don’t use it.”

I can understand how it might just be simpler to be a vegetarian and I fully support that choice, but if we’re looking for a shift in mainstream food culture, it will sound too radical and definitive for many. Food is important culturally. It’s a part of our family history and traditions, as well as our personal preferences. People will not give up food habits lightly, and the thought of giving up meat altogether sounds like a big ask.

So it’s important to have other entry points for a more sustainable diet. You might want to only eat high-welfare meat, for example, or only eat meat on special occasions. You could try only eating meat at your main meal, which would avoid those processed meats that doctors tell us we should eat less of anyway. You can also look at which meats you eat, because they are far from equal in their ecological impact. As the Chatham House report Changing Climate, Changing Diets explains, cattle and other ruminants produce a lot more greenhouse gases than other animals:


That suggests an easy first step for many of us – eat less beef. Or none. Or serve it at Christmas. If some of your favourites are usually beef, experiment. Try a pork and rosemary lasagna perhaps. You will still have bacon, which in my experience is the single biggest obstacle to vegetarianism.

As I mentioned last week, eating less meat would be good for our health as well as the environment. Most of us would find it cheaper to eat less meat as well, and millions of animals would be spared a miserable existence. There’s everything to gain, but there are all kinds of intermediate steps when it comes to eating less meat. Ensuring the message reaches the mainstream will mean small steps, easy to reach alternatives, and incremental change. Sorry PETA.


  1. Very true. I do believe even Sir Paulie recommends “Meatless Mondays.” That’s not hard and the body will actually do something to thank that little sacrifice of the taste buds.

  2. Is lamb counted as a ‘small ruminant’? Round here (Pennines) they are grazed on land that is otherwise not productive from an agricultural point of view (though valuable for nature of course).

  3. You couldn’t replace beef with pork on a integrated farm, too much copper in the pig slurry it really is a waste product rather than a useful manure.

  4. Your comment on bacon is pretty dumb, sorry mate. If people can’t divorce mere taste from animal suffering, health and environmental issues, there is no helping them. People go vegan because the vast majority don’t do ANYTHING, therefore the minority has a lot to make up for, if you get my drift. The point of the advert is also obviously pointing out that all animals are equal. You should be asking yourself why it is that dogs get preference beside the table as opposed to on it.

    1. I take your point, but I’m trying to look at how we move the mass of people. I’ve had so many conversations where people say “I could never be a vegetarian” and then someone says “bacon”, only half as a joke. Apparently most people can divorce taste from animal suffering, and we don’t have the luxury of saying there’s no helping them.

      We need to move food culture generally, rather than just encourage the most compassionate among us to opt out. That’s what PETA’s ad can’t do, and why we need to look for compromises, even though those look inadequate to those who are prepared to do the right thing.

  5. I love how you are thinking outside of the box. It is almost paradoxical that telling people to cut back on meat will actually have a bigger impact than telling people to go vegan. If I recall correctly, a study found that the best and most effective terminology is to “cut out or cut back” on meat consumption. This allows room for choice and does not pressure the person into making an all or nothing decision.

    The only thing I would be careful on is advising people to shift to pig meat instead of cow meat. We need to look at this from a high level and consider all consequences. The Golden Rule demands that we imagine ourselves as both the cow and the pig and help them the best way possible. From an animal welfare perspective, eating cows is better than eating pigs based on the sheer amount of suffering each faces (although both are terrible with the advent of the modern day factory farm). This shift away from red meat has paradoxically caused even greater suffering because we are eating more chickens which are much smaller, require many times more lives, and not to mention they are almost always factory farmed. As a Christian this is very disturbing considering Christ relates himself to a chicken to describe completely selfless love (Matthew 23:37). This is quite fitting considering chickens as a whole suffer more than any one else in the whole world.

    1. Yes, what’s better for carbon emissions isn’t necessarily better for animal welfare and that’s one of the conundrums. It’s always going to be better to cut out beef than to substitute it for a different meant. I’d encourage people to seek out higher welfare meat regardless, and as a Christian myself I’d see that as a matter of discipleship and stewardship.

      You’re right about the chickens – there are 14 billion battery chickens in the world, which has got to make it the most abused species on the planet. In fact I might write about that specifically.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I did not see this until now. One thing I can add to this if you are a Christian, consider how Jesus is portrayed as the Good Shepherd. An earthly shepherd slaughters his sheep. On the other hand, Jesus laid down his life for his sheep. Jesus was given dominion over us and we were given dominion over the animals. If we are serious about being Christian, we should use that form of stewardship, and not the earthly form, as the model for how we treat animals.

        All the best,

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