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Is meat-eating good for the planet?

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Stefan Gates Stefan Gates | 11:07 UK time, Wednesday, 18 May 2011

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?

Man biting into raw steak

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.



Duck eggs


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.

Rural management
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.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think there is every reason we should eat LESS meat but not give it up altogether. Environmental arguments aside it's probably healthier. Humans were not designed to eat meat every day. But if we cease to keep livestock we would have no milk, eggs, leather etc. The cow cannot give us milk if she is feeding a calf. If we don't eat the male offspring what do we do with them?

  • Comment number 2.

    How awful the countryside would be without farm animals, the joy of seeing lambs and calves in the fields would disappear. Driving from Scotland down through England after the foot and mouth epidemic and seeing empty fields was incredibly sad. The human digestion is designed for meat eating, focus on improving the lives of farmed animals should be the priority not making them exstinct!

  • Comment number 3.

    we are obviously omnivorous, and i agree that a less 'meat-led' diet would do us all good. if not at least for the amount of salt/preservatives found in a large part of our meat intake, then for the sake of our agricultural economy. If we eat less imported meat and more home-grown vegetables or grains that surely cannot do us any harm (physically and economically)

  • Comment number 4.

    Interesting blog. I agree with the idea of less meat eating. I guess, if each one (meat eater )eats meat only 2-3 times a week, it would have a positive change on the climate and the live stock. We should pro-actively be stressing on Organic breeding and feeding practices for animals to have healthy meat and healthy animals. It is a food change and we need to eat the animals to keep the balance. And yes they are tasty!:)

  • Comment number 5.

    I don't want to give up eating meat as I enjoy it too much but have changed my meat eating habits to the extent that I only buy free range meat now. It is, of course more expensive and as I'm retired on a static income, that means that I do eat less meat than before. It seems to be a good balance.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    There was more discussion on this issue on our messageboard over the weekend:

    johnnydolittle: Humans have always been omnivores so why change?

    Denadar: I like things the way they are - maybe I would prefer it to be as it was in the middle of the last century though (without the drudgery and penury)… original farming methods where crops were rotated so that the ground was not depleted of one particular nutrient (? - don't know if that is the right word)…. fertiliser was a natural animal waste product and the cost of meat kept our (or most of our) consumption down. I think I want the best of both worlds, the animal husbandry and farming methods of long ago and the comfort, cushioning and choice of today. I like seeing ruminating cows chewing the cud (maybe not so many) and lambs/sheep in the fields. I don't want to see jumping kangaroos, although I believe we have wild wallabies in Kent now. Hedgerows are an important part of our countryside too, hosting small animals and birds, another reason IMHO for keeping the status quo.

  • Comment number 8.

    Joanbunting: "I think I want the best of both worlds, the animal husbandry and farming methods of long ago and the comfort, cushioning and choice of today." I am completely with you. Because fields here [in rural France] are so small they have to be rotated, apart of course for the cherry orchards and vineyards. The fields at the south end of the hameau are farmed as they should be. Unfortunately it means that we only get poppies en masse every three years! The goats and sheep kind of take care of themselves and we do have, if not hedgerows, wild flower margins that are never cut until after they have seeded. One of the reasons I love being here is the rhythm of the seasons. This I never got in urban Newcastle. For me meat - take it or leave it. I guess four times a week max - other times veggie or fish, but I would happily up the latter proportion.

    Sidpickle: Would somebody tell me how peoples like Eskimos cope with a diet devoid of vegetables and I assume roughage? They must be constantly constipated or is there something I am missing? Is this the origins of the Atkins diet?

    meto: In reply to Sidpickle and if you can live with my posting a Google link, the Inuit Paradox Discovery Magazine article covers a lot about the differences learned from studies on Inuits whose diets consist mainly of meat: (2004, 4 pages).


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