The natural cost of meat

Our food choices affect more than our carbon footprints.

Recently there’s been more interest in plant-based food – from prominent chefs like Eddie Shepherd with his pioneering cuisine, to Greggs (the largest bakery chain in the UK) and their soaring profits thanks to vegan sausage rolls.

A long line of environmentalists recognise that the global food system is unsustainable. While a billion people go hungry, hundreds of thousands suffer from obesity and food producers in rich and poor countries alike struggle to make a living.

Industrial meat and dairy production is having a huge impact on the planet. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases worldwide. This is from a combination of methane emissions, fossil fuel consumption, nitrogen fertilisers and deforestation.

It’s more than a decade since Lord Stern, the economist and author of the Stern Report on Climate Change, was ridiculed for pointing out that rearing livestock produces methane that is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as an agent of global warming. He said that it was essential we reduce the amount of meat and dairy produce we eat.

Some economies are heavily dependent on animals as a source of goods for sale and transportation, rather than food consumption. That fact makes change difficult. But here in Wales this is not the case. Reducing the amount of meat we eat, and eating meat that is produced ethically, locally, and of a better quality to avoid waste, can have a big impact on improving our health, animal welfare and the environment.

Emissions can be reduced by changing the ways that animals are reared. Traditionally sheep and cattle ate grasses and shrubs that humans couldn’t eat, now they are fed on grains, rice and maize. About 40% of the world’s cereals are used to feed farm animals, but only around a third of the calories in the feed are converted into useful meat or dairy produce.

Where we live, we do have a choice of which meats to buy – for instance our local farmers’ markets and butchers rear and sell ‘grass-fed lamb’. Paying the right price to producers makes these farming methods sustainable.

The ‘eat less meat’ message may be unpalatable to many, but ‘eat more veg, pulses, nuts and grains’ to save money, improve your health and reduce carbon emissions is a compelling argument.

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