Updated: Oct 28, 2020
Plant-based diets offer one of the most effective means of reducing our environmental impact. Aron Penczu takes an in-depth look at the future of the meat industry, from smallholder farming to meat and dairy taxes and culturing meat, for IFLA! issue 5. Though transformation is possible, he argues, it demands pragmatic, decisive action.
Illustration by Joey Yu
Defenders of meat-eating sometimes argue that the problem is ‘intensive’ farming – industrial production on factory farms – and suggest shifting to pasture-fed meat and dairy instead. Few explain that to do so without reducing our meat consumption would require several new planets' worth of land. The fantastic inefficiency of ‘extensively’ farming animals, as George Monbiot has reported eloquently in the Guardian, renders it worse, even, than factory farming. Extensive livestock farming has a higher ecological cost per unit of food by almost every metric, including water use, greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, and phosphorus and nitrate pollution.
Globally, livestock agriculture accounts for half our total land use, and four fifths of our agricultural land; yet it provides less than a fifth of our calories. Without animal products we could feed the world while reducing global farmland use by more than 75%. Incredibly, this would return to nature an area as large as the US, China, Australia, and the EU combined.
Because this freed-up land could be used to store carbon, the opportunity cost of meat production is enormous, and causes its true carbon footprint to skyrocket. A kilogram of beef protein has a carbon cost of 1250 kg – roughly equivalent to the carbon released by heating an average European home for a year. It's 73 times the carbon cost of sourcing the same protein directly from plants.
These statistics, derived from research first published in Nature and Science in the past few years, reinforce the existing consensus that we must cut our meat and dairy consumption. Though a meat tax will likely remain political anathema for years, this reduction could be achieved incrementally with softer policies. Even limited changes could have outsize impacts: cutting consumption of animal products in half by avoiding the most polluting producers would achieve three quarters of the emissions reductions achieved by going fully plant-based.
Illustration by Joey Yu
If the UK switched entirely to a plant-based diet, meanwhile, the land now used for pasture and feedstock would absorb 150 million tons of CO2 annually – over 40% of current annual emissions. Once we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit of decarbonising the electricity supply, nothing offers comparable reductions in our climate impact. Aviation will not be decarbonised in our lifetimes, and many other sectors – home-heating, private transport, heavy industry – will take decades of investment. We can begin cutting meat from our diets today.
Environmental consciousness is percolating into new segments of society, and increasingly affecting business decisions
Competition will be one major driver of the shift toward plant-based diets. Environmental consciousness is percolating into new segments of society, and increasingly affecting business decisions: investment firm BlackRock’s recent advice against investing in coal is a case in point. According to Sainsbury’s analysis of 2019 consumer spending habits, one in eight Britons is already vegetarian, and by 2025 that number will double; another half of the population will identify as flexitarian. For multinational corporations, the enormous profits on offer matter far more than ethical exigencies.