Despite what is presented in the mass media, or what you see spread on Facebook, the consensus on climate change is undeniable within science. Out of 4252 papers mentioning a stance on climate change, 97% agree that it is induced by our activities1. Interestingly, consensus increase more as subject specialisation increases (i.e.; the more that people know about the climate system, the more that they agree that we’re messing it up)2. As a scientist, I find it really frustrating that the world outside of science has been spending most of its time discussing whether the change is real instead of doing something about. However, the recent Paris Agreement looks to be a step in the direction. In the UK, we started our movements towards the Paris Agreement by allowing oil and gas companies to frack under our national parks a few days after the agreement was made… not a good start, but strong evidence that we can’t rely on the government to impose the changes needed for a positive climate future. We can only rely on ourselves.
I’ve always found it incredibly strange working within science, specifically within conservation science; on which climate change has a ginormous effect. I find it strange because of a supposedly ‘controversial’ topic; our diets. Ah, and so we reach the purpose of this post; to address diet as a noncontroversial subject in tackling climate change, and to hopefully kick us scientists into some personal action.
Let’s start with the facts. The food industry accounts for nearly a 3rd of all greenhouse gas emissions3, which is more than the emissions of all the transport in the world combined4. The industry creates 37 percent of all human created methane – methane itself is 23x more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2. The industry is one of the largest contributors to water pollution too. A third of the world’s surface – one third of the entire surface of the Earth – is used for livestock. That’s more land use than any other human activity. Where does this land come from? It comes from rainforests. In fact, 70% of the Amazon region’s forests have been converted into grazing land.4
“70% of the Amazon region’s forests have been converted into grazing land.” It’s easy to read that as a fact, as a scientific phrase and not as a real life action. Think for a second about what that means. If, like myself, you’re lucky enough to have ever visited a full-on jungle, I’m sure a shiver will run down your spine in the same way it runs down mine when you consider that landscape being turned into a grass field. All those birds you could hear, the incredible richness of plants, the biggest trees you’ve ever seen that have stood in that place for over 1000 years, the huge amount of biodiversity, the wild cats and monkeys and bears and mammals that you clench your hands in the hope of sighting. They’re all dead. Now I’m writing this relatively more emotionally that I normally write on my blog, but that doesn’t mean that this is not founded in fact. It is – there’s no denying it.
The scariest pat of all this? Meat consumption is on the rise3. Interestingly, this isn’t on the rise in areas where it is particularly needed – like in subsaharan Africa3. We may be cutting our transport outputs through government policy, and reducing our plastic usage by saying no to straws and taking canvas bags to the supermarket, but we are consuming more of the thing that creates a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
The solution: is it vegetarianism? Let’s look at the science. Every paper I can find analysing the effects of diet on the environment says the same thing: a plant based diet undeniably reduces your personal climate impact3,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12 <— Check out all those references.. Let’s make it simple: Meat is worse than Vegetarianism which is worse than Veganism. This is true even with a high degree of processing and transport8. There are a few individual item exceptions, such as fresh food items transported by aeroplane due to the energy used in keeping them fresh for a long time, but this still has a smaller environmental impact than even locally sourced beef8. If you consider that a plant-based diet is unlikely to have any more than a small percentage attributed to fresh food transported by aeroplane (and that these items can be easily avoided), these individual differences hold no bearing; Plant-based diets are the winners.
The fastidious of you will have spotted reference 12 (thumbs up for those who checked through all the references) – the paper by Baroni et al. from which I have taken the above figure. There are a few points made in this article regarding organic food being both better for the environment and for health. It’s a large topic to go in to – and one that I urge you all to explore – but let’s get it clear from he onset; organic food is not necessarily better for the environment or for health13,14. Now that we’ve got that misconception out the way, let’s move on to some other common misunderstandings.
The most common argument I come up against regarding a change away from a diet of meat is that of protein. Here’s the truth: Protein is obtained more efficiently per energy unit from plant sources7. In fact, the higher the protein content in meat, the less efficient we are at obtaining it; where as the higher the protein content in plants, the more efficient we are in obtaining it7,8. Another common argument I come up against is regarding the increased use of soya in plant-based diets. It’s true that huge swathes of forest land is being cut down for soya plantations around the world4. However, it’s nothing short of amusing to think that all this soya is going into meat-free food ranges, or dairy free milk options. Fundamentally, 97% of the soymeal produced worldwide is used for animal feed4. In fact 33 percent of the Earth’s arable land is used to produce feed for livestock4.
There’s two common articles I’ve seen spread on social media as evidence of vegetarianism being bad for the environment. The first states that choosing the vegetarian option is both worse for the environment and less ethical from an animal welfare point of view. The downfall of this article is that it only applies in Australia where growing crops is particularly challenging, and only to wild grazing animals or sustainably culled kangaroos. All the animal welfare arguments apply to the destruction of wild lands for crop growth that would be needed due to the infertile nature of Australia’s land. Subsequently, to the rest of the world this does not apply. The second article has been shared slightly more recently, with the attention grabbing headline of lettuce producing more emissions than bacon. However, this is a nonsensical calorie-for-calorie comparison – as nobody eats lettuce for it’s energy content but for it’s nutritional value – and anyone with enough concentration or effort to read the whole article would see that this article even states that “Switching to a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet would result in a 33 percent decrease in emissions. Vegan diets are 53 percent more efficient.”.
Let’s talk for a quick second about sustainable seafood. The whole concept of sustainable seafood is completely flawed and drives me up the wall. When a fish is labelled as sustainable, it simply means that it is is slightly less unsustainable than another fish. NO FISH IS SUSTAINABLE. The Marine Stewardship Council – that blue MSC sticker you see on the ‘slightly-less-unsustainable’ options – is hugely flawed in it’s certification; with a lack of links between the certification and actual conservation outcomes16. The MSC certification has also been used to prevent the implementation of marine reserves in Australia17. On top of this, the certification generally supports bigger fisheries, whilst being hard to obtain for smaller fisheries – particularly in developing nations – which are subsequently losing out to the more environmentally destructive practices of big boat fleets18. Stop eating fish. If you feel that you just have to eat something that isn’t plant-based, eat chicken.
The Science Has Spoken, But Are We – The Scientists – Acting?
There’s a third article, which is a very interesting read. It’s a self-critical article by George Monbiot on how his views on veganism being the most sustainable option are wrong. However, if you read this article you will see that it is based on an appeal to a future scenario that does not exist, and does not look likely to exist. This is a logical fallacy that I have named ‘an appeal to the future’, which in this case is a world where our meat producing society is entirely different. In the knowledge of the current state of our meat-producing society, these arguments do not hold up. This same idea is applied by conservation biologists and environmentalists the world over; we do not need everybody to reduce their meat consumption to zero in order to live in a sustainable world, so many individuals in the realm of environmentalism and conservation simply reduce their own personal intake. However, this is the same appeal to future fallacy, as we do not live in a world where many people are reducing their meat intake and subsequent environmental impact. In the knowledge of this, actors in conservation cannot aim to merely reduce meat consumption, but must act to cut out meat entirely to account for the millions of other people who will not act in any way. George Monbiot later readdressed his points, and reconverted back to the idea of cutting out animal products as much as possible.
From my own experience – working both with scientists and volunteers in the conservation/environmental sector – the number of vegetarians/vegans is surprisingly low. It is not just the direct effects of reduced emissions that come with a meat-free diet; It invokes conversation. People ask what your reasons are – the perfect chance to raise awareness on the environmental impact of our diets. This is important, as people simply don’t realise the positive impact that can be had by individuals. Another undeniable positive is the animal rights aspect of a meat-free diet. Many people work in conservation due to an inherent interest in animals, most of our initial intrigue into biology is drawn from a love for animals. What’s not to like about a diet that dissociates yourself from animal suffering?
It may seem from this article that I’ve been Vegan for years, but that very much isn’t the case. At the time of writing, I’ve been vegan for just 3 months. I’m letting you know this in the hope of reducing any self-righteous tone that may come across in the text of this article. I’ve been vegetarian for environmental reasons since I first discovered the impact of agriculture on climate change in 2008. It was only three months ago that I sat down with myself and realised that all my positive environmental arguments for being vegetarian also apply to veganism. I could no longer justify eating cheese (which I love the taste of) for the same reasons explained in this article that I could no longer justify eating meat (which I also love the taste of). I was a little scared of veganism too. In reality, it’s easy. So, so easy. That’s why I’m writing this article because being vegan is just as easy as reducing the amount of time you spend in the shower – only it has a positive environmental impact infinitely larger.
The main purpose of this article – the take home point – is simple. As conservationists and environmentalists, we spend our whole time asking people to reduce, to reduce, to reduce, and to reduce. But how we can ask others to change, how can we inspire environmental action when we are not willing to make the simplest change ourselves; moving to a meat-free diet. If we don’t, it is nothing short of hypocrisy.