Is meat-eating good for the planet?
The western world should cut down its meat consumption for many reasons: livestock drains the planet’s water and grain supplies, causes environmental degradation and produces 18% of all greenhouse gases. And that’s aside from the argument on the morality of killing animals when humans can survive pretty successfully on plants.
But that isn’t the whole story. I thought it would be interesting to investigate the flip-side of the livestock argument: would the world really be better off without meat?
What’s the beef with giving up meat?
Economy and culture
What would we do with the 315,000 people in the UK working in the agricultural livestock industry, creating a farm-gate value of £7.6bn? Shifting these people and this income from a livestock-based countryside is presumably possible, but it would mean dramatic change. And simply planting more crops wouldn’t fill the gap.
I’ve worked with the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic and have seen the crippling cultural disintegration caused by a rapid loss of traditional skills and a shift away from hunting culture to a modern welfare society. The sudden irrelevance of an economy and culture built on a specific skill-set has caused widespread misery and associated social problems including unemployment, alcoholism and domestic violence. If we dismantled the livestock industry, we’d render centuries-old animal husbandry skills, history and traditions irrelevant, and risk destroying much of what gives rural communities in the UK their identity. In every developing country I’ve visited, waste-fed and foraging animals such as chickens and pigs are one of the few sources of income, especially for people who have little or no land of their own. Take away their livestock and you take away some people’s ability to survive.
Without the dairy industry, we wouldn’t have eggs, milk, cheese and butter, hugely important food sources for billions of people; neither would we have the by-products of 11 million tonnes of leather and two million tonnes of wool. These by-products would have to be replaced by something else, with its own ecological cost. Manure from livestock contributes around 15% of fertilising nitrogen - a small but significant amount, and without it the organic system of farming (which relies on manure) would disappear too.
Efficient land use
Although a high proportion of land in the UK is used for agriculture (nearly 68% compared to a European average of 40%), we actually have a relatively low amount of arable land for growing crops (39% compared to, say, France at 62%). Half of the UK is covered by grass and grazing land, and this is mostly permanent grassland for grazing livestock (and let’s not forget, we can’t eat grass or hay, so it really is better eaten by an animal). Converting that to a different usage isn’t necessarily cost-effective or even possible. Marginal grazing land is often more efficiently used for livestock rather than crops, and around the world an estimated 10% of animals are currently raised without being fed grain, which is small, but significant.
Without livestock, the investment that farmers make in managing the countryside would change dramatically. Have you seen the vast crop-only fields of northern France and the American Midwest? It’s like the moon out there, with not a hedgerow or coppice in sight. Animal husbandry provides an income that encourages farmers to care for the rural landscape.
None of these individual arguments are insurmountable, and we should definitely cut our meat consumption. There are ample reasons to change livestock farming for the better (perhaps we could start by farming kangaroos, which produce no methane?) but it does seem that getting rid of agricultural livestock may not be the panacea we imagine.
So over to you, what do you think would happen if the world cut meat from its diet?
Stefan Gates is a BBC presenter and food writer.