Something my conscience and I have wrestled with is eating meat. I know that conventional meat production is intensive, sometimes cruel and is not good for the planet for many reasons. But I believe that a human animal is supposed to eat some meat to keep healthy. So am I selling out my principles by claiming I try to be a sustainable meat eater or should I just go vegan?
Do we need to eat meat?
If you have been anaemic, the first question you will get asked is are you vegetarian. If you have suffered from a vitamin B₁₂ deficiency you will be asked the same. To find enough sources of iron or vitamin B₁₂ by eating plants alone is very difficult without taking supplements. Our teeth and guts are designed by nature to cut up and digest meat. So how can we consume meat without damaging the planet?
The most important and easy changes to make.
Have a meat free day each week, have less meat on your plate, only a third of your meal needs to be meat, buy local pasture grazed and organic. Conventional farmers will argue that you can’t keep livestock out all year and to do so requires large amounts of land. Ford Hall Farm manage to graze livestock all year round by raising light breeds that don’t damage the ground in winter and on a carefully managed mixture of grasses. It would seem that yes this would need more land than conventional farming but there are no processed feed inputs, when you consider the grain that would have to be grown to feed the livestock through the winter, this is not actually the case. Yes the meat is slightly more expensive because it is slower growing but it is healthier for you and sustainably produced. To compensate: buy less, eat less, then it costs less.
Vegan/vegetarian is better for the planet surely?
One’s gut reaction (no pun intended!) is to believe this statement to be true, however let’s think this through. To successfully grow cereals, vegetables and fruit we need fertilisers, we can use chemical fertiliser that has a massive carbon footprint and uses fossil fuels as its raw material or we can use organic fertiliser a ready-made source of this of course is animal poo. But what about the methane animals produce? Yes of course this is something to be considered very seriously which is why we should be looking to eating far less meat than we do now. We also need to consider that the carbon added to the atmosphere by animals belching is not adding carbon to the carbon cycle it is recirculating it, unlike burning fossil fuels which have taken millions of years to accumulate. However methane has over twenty times the greenhouse gas potential of carbon dioxide and so livestock ‘emissions’ remain significant. The converse argument for organic fertilisers is that not everyone will ever go vegetarian and so the manure is a by-product of another activity, in that respect it looks better.
If we all have a vegan diet then we have to grow a lot of protein rich plants, this would need a lot of land. There is also land that is not suitable for growing crops but is suitable for grazing animals. The calculation on whether one diet is deliverable therefore becomes linked to climate, behaviour and geography, but what about another huge consideration for us as a species…
As global trends move more towards a ‘western style’ diet so too does the farming methods. The EU have a ban on prophylactic antibiotic use for livestock farming, nonetheless Germany is the fourth largest consumer, China using the most, creating ideal conditions for breeding resistant bacteria. This has a knock on effect for human health which is very worrying and is already starting to be seen in the US where the cases of amputations due to untreatable infections is increasing. In fact there have now been cases in China of antibiotic resistance in humans to an antibiotic only used in animals proving that resistance can be transferred from animals to humans. So a vegetable based diet looks preferable in that context.
There are a range of additional arguments about this topic including the different energy yields from meat versus plants, and ‘food miles’, but as is identified above there are a number of different impacts and ultimately, compromises, across different environmental and health disciplines as regards the best approach to deriving diet. And that’s without consulting dieticians!
The tried and tested adage of buying local, seeking organic, seasonal produce and knowing where your food has come from (home grown where you can!) is a sensible compromise for a more sustainable lifestyle (veggie or omni)!
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