Animal News

Can vegetarians save the world - May 28th 2009

Can vegetarians save the world
Saturday 16 May 2009

A small town in Belgium has gone meat-free one day a week. A sign of things to come, says one food historian.

For decades, environmental
arguments against eating meat have been largely the preserve of
vegetarian websites and magazines. Just two years ago it seemed
inconceivable that significant numbers of western Europeans would be
ready to down their steak knives and graze on vegetation for the sake
of the planet. The rapidity with which this situation has changed is

The breakthrough came in 2006 when the UN Food
and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published a study, Livestock's Long
Shadow, showing that the livestock industry is responsible for a
staggering 18% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This is
only the beginning of the story. In 2008, Brazil announced that in the
12 months to July it had lost 12,000 sq km (3m acres) of the Amazon
rainforest, mainly to cattle ranchers and soy producers supplying
European markets with animal feed. There is water scarcity in large
parts of the world, yet livestock-rearing can use up to 200 times more
water a kilogram (2.2lbs) of meat produced than is used in growing
wheat. Given the volatile global food prices, it seems foolhardy to
divert 1.2bn tonnes of fodder – including cereals – to fuel global meat
consumption, which has increased by more than two and half times since

Vegetarians have been around for a very long time –
Pythagoreans forbade eating animals more than 2,500 years ago – but
even as the environmental evidence mounted, they didn't appear to be
winning the argument. Today in Britain just 2% of the population is

Thankfully, a more pragmatic alternative to total
abstinence now seems to be emerging. In September 2008, Dr Rajendra
Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC), a vegetarian himself, called on people to take personal
responsibility for the impacts of their consumption.

"Give up
meat for one day [a week] initially, and decrease it from there," he
said. "In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing
about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most
attractive opportunity." This week the Belgian city of Ghent met his
demands by declaring Thursday a meat-free day. Restaurants, canteens
and schools will now opt to make vegetarianism the default for one day
a week, and promote meat-free meals on other days as well.

is not the first institutional backing for such a move. In Britain, the
NHS now aims to reduce its impact on the environment partly by
"increasing the use of sustainably sourced fish and reducing our
reliance on eggs, meat and dairy". Last year, Camden council in London
announced that it would be issuing a report calling for schools, care
homes and canteens on council premises to cut meat from menus and
encourage staff to become vegetarian. (In the end the initiative was
shot down by Conservative councillors who insisted that people should
not be deprived of choice.) While in Germany the federal environment
agency in January called on Germans to follow a more Mediterranean diet
by reserving meat only for special occasions.

These initiatives
may sound novel, but in fact they reinstate what was for centuries an
obligatory practice across Europe. The fasting laws of the Catholic
church stipulated that on Fridays, fast days, and Lent, no one could
eat meat or wine; on some days, dairy products and fish were also
banned. Even after the Reformation Elizabeth I upheld the Lenten fast,
insisting that while there was no religious basis for fasting, there
were sound utilitarian motives: to ­protect the country's livestock
from over-exploitation and to promote the fishing industry (which had
the ancillary benefit of increasing the number of ships available for
the navy).

Towards the end of the 18th century, two consecutive
bad harvests in Europe created shortages. There was a huge public
clamour for the wealthy to cut down on their meat consumption in order
to leave more grain for the poor. The idea that meat was a cruel
profligacy became current, and led Percy Bysshe Shelley to declare that
the carnivorous rich literally monopolised land and food by taking more
of it than they needed. "The use of animal flesh," he said, "directly
militates with this equality of the rights of man."

In the wake
of last year's food crisis and with mounting concern over global
warming, we appear to have reached a similar crisis moment.

vegetarian argument is complicated, however, by the fact that in terms
of environmental impact, no two pieces of meat are the same. A hunk of
beef raised on Scottish moorland has a very different ecological
footprint from one created in an intensive feedlot using concentrated
cereal feed, and a wild venison or rabbit casserole is arguably greener
than a vegetable curry. Likewise, countries have very different animal
husbandry methods. For example, in the US, for each calorie of meat or
dairy food produced, farm animals consume on average more than 5
calories of feed. In India the rate is a less than 1.5 calories. In
Kenya, where there isn't the luxury of feeding grains to animals,
livestock yield more calories than they consume because they are
fattened on grass and agricultural by-products inedible to humans.

a paper published last month in the American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition, food ecologist Annika Carlsson-Kanyama showed that kilo for
kilo, beef and pork could produce 30 times more CO² emissions than
other protein rich foods such as beans. On the other hand, the paper
also indicated that poultry and eggs had much lower ­emissions than
cheese, which was among the highest polluters. So do meat-free days,
and arguments for vegetarianism in general, take adequate consideration
of these subtleties, or should we all be chucking out the cheese and
going vegan?

"A vegetarian day is a simple message that people
can understand," says Carlsson-Kanyama, "though probably what we
ultimately need to do is eat less animal products overall."

Evans, fellow at the Centre on International Cooperation at New York
University, points out that more and more people – including Sir
Nicholas Stern, the author of a 2006 review on the economics of global
warming – accept that the only equitable way of achieving an
international agreement on climate change is for rich and poor nations
to converge on an equal per capita "fair share" of carbon emissions.
"The same ought to apply to food," Evans says, "but currently there is
no agreed method for calculating what is my 'fair share' of the world's
food supply – in particular how much meat."

Based on the global
food production figures published by the FAO, I did a few preliminary
calculations. Global average consumption of meat and dairy products
including milk was 152kg a person in 2003. Average EU and US
consumption, by contrast, was over 400kg, while Uganda's was 45kg. In
order to reach the equitable fair share of global production, rich
western countries would have to cut their consumption by 2.7 times –
and this doesn't include the fact that the butter will have to be
spread even more thinly if the global population really does increase
by another 2.3 billion by 2050.

However, still further reductions
would be necessary because global meat production is already at
unsustainable levels. The IPCC among other bodies, has called for an
80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Since high levels of
meat and dairy ­consumption are luxuries, it seems reasonable to expect
livestock production to take its share of the hit. For rich ­western
countries this would mean decreasing meat and dairy consumption to
significantly less than one tenth of current levels, the sooner the

It is all very well for 2% of the population to live in a
monastic state of meatlessness while everyone else gorges their way
towards environmental meltdown or the nearest heart clinic.
Vegetarianism is good for the willing ­minority, but not much use as a
campaign tool. Beginning as Ghent has done, with one meat-free day a
week, is a historically-proven idea palatably re-fashioned for the age
of eco-consciousness. It also appears to be gaining popular approval,
even if McDonald's need not fear for the survival of its Big Mac, yet.