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Can you claim to care about climate change and the environment, whilst being a meat-eater?

Climate change, global warming, mass extinction, and environmental degradation are the most dangerous threats to my generation. 
Those of us who are millennial or gen-Z, are painfully and constantly aware of the imminent threat to life as we know it. Being raised from a young age on catastrophising news and media, about the collapsing, crashing and burning of our planet, has undoubtedly had a dire effect on the outlook and psyche of young people.
Those who keep up to date with the news are frequently reminded of the horrors of extreme climate, such as unstoppable fires, floods, droughts, ice storms, and hurricanes; these instances and trends of extreme conditions only seem to be increasing in speed and frequency.

The evidence that climate change is accelerating is mounting. We see news stories almost daily about the most recent climate disaster. Not long ago, flash floods in Germany and other European countries left 150 people dead, and thousands homeless in a matter of days. This region traditionally expects 1 flood every 100 years, but since 2003, has now experienced 4 deadly flash floods (Anderson, 2007) (Arnds, Bohner, & Bechtel, 2017). New York has also felt the wrath of flash floods this year, with the subway system full of rushing water in minutes, people drowning in their basement apartments, and entire neighbourhoods destroyed without citizens being warned, as the Storm Ida death toll nears 50 in a span of 2 days.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the intense heatwaves in Canada and North America have claimed many lives this year. Vast areas of these nations reached over 50°C, with the maximum being 54°C in California, possibly the highest temperature ever recorded. Canada’s chief coroner said that 720 sudden heat-related deaths were reported in a single week during the wave, which is over triple the number expected, compared to previous years.

The ‘polar vortex’ which hit Texas and other regions of the USA in February 2021 also claimed 150 lives, when water pipes and electrical wires froze, as temperatures dropped to -18.3°C; people were trapped in their homes with no heating or water supply, leading to the hypothermia deaths.

Forest fires in Australia, America, and parts of Europe have now become an expected routine each year. In 2019 there were 50,477 wildfires reported by the National Interagency Fire Centre (NIFC), narrowly missing the record of 58,083 fires in 2018; approximately 13.5 million acres burned in these 2 years in the USA alone. Statistics for global fire damage are difficult to attain due to their scale. This is an unimaginable loss of life and wild spaces, releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, in addition to immense human damage, with homes, businesses, and lives lost.

Ice caps in Arctic and Antarctic regions are melting at an unprecedented rate, leading to sea level rises and habitat destruction (Ciraci, Velicogna, & Swenson, 2020) (Tepes & Gourmelen, 2021). Current estimates suggest that melting of the Artic and Greenland ice sheets would cause a rise in sea levels of 8 metres (Sharp, Wolken, & Wouters, 2021), inevitably leading to an increase in global flooding.

The WHO currently estimates that 150,000 people are killed per year by climate change impacts. This map taken from the WHO website shows the distribution of these deaths. Although the western world and temperate zones are seeing more climate crises in recent years, the majority of deaths are still recorded in the continents of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. The burdens vary geographically but were of the order of dozens to hundreds of deaths per year in many locations (Vicedo-Cabrera, Scovronick, & Gasparrini, 2021). Droughts and high temperatures cause the highest proportion of deaths, with crops unable to grow, famine ensues, and with a lack of water, people are forced to drink from unsafe water sources, which carry deadly diseases such as cholera and typhoid (Mukwada & et al., 2021).
In the case of extreme weather, events that used to exist as once per century freak phenomena, are now becoming commonplace. The seven hottest years in recorded human history have all occurred since 2014 (Li, 2020).

In addition to costs to human life, scientists claim that we are currently in a 6th mass extinction event of life on Earth, similar to the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs and three-quarters of all plant and animal species on Earth. The difference being that the scientific consensus is that these events are directly human driven, whereas all previous extinction events have been meteorological or caused by natural cycles of the planet (Maertens, Anseel, & van der Linden, 2020) (Lewandowsky, 2021).
Yale University reported on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2015, saying that evidence suggests we lose between 25-150 species every day. More recent studies support this claim (Seersholm, 2020) (Almeida, 2020).

The professor of Global Climatology and Hydrology at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Impact Research, Dieter Gerten, said about the situation: “I am surprised by how far it is above the previous record, we seem to be not just above normal but in domains we didn’t expect in terms of spatial extent and the speed it developed”, when asked about the rise in extreme weather events.

The human release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone are primarily to blame for climate change. These gases are released into the atmosphere when we burn hydrocarbon fossil fuels for travel, electricity, and production/ manufacturing, as well as from a variety of agriculture methods. When in the atmosphere, they form a thick layer, which literally acts like a greenhouse. The Earth’s atmosphere is essential to life, without it, the planet wouldn’t be able to retain any heat and would freeze. However, the atmosphere is supposed to let short and long wave radiation from the Sun through, to heat and light the planet, but then most of the Infrared radiation (heat) is supposed to be re-emitted from the earth and bounce back into space.  However, when the layer of gases becomes too thick, this longwave radiation cannot bounce back out, and becomes trapped in the atmosphere and the infrared heats up the planet more than it’s supposed to, thereby raising global temperatures. This is what is driving the current changes we are seeing in the Earth’s climate.

To make matters worse, it seems as though this situation is out of our control, not in the hands of the public, but being generated by the billionaire elites and corporations, consumed by the drive of profit and power (Collins, 2020) (Schmidt, 2020) (Ertem-Eray, 2020). Those who have it within their financial power to fund modern solutions to pollution and protection against natural disasters, are using their billions to explore Mars.

So, what are we to do? The ordinary people who will be most affected by the results of climate change, seemingly have no power to prevent or slow its destruction.

To simplify – we are scared!
We are scared for the future, whether it will exist or not sometimes feels uncertain.
We are scared for the prospect of having children, a decision which should be met with joy and excitement is now – more than ever – being abandoned, in the fear that the world left for the next generation will neither be safe nor guaranteed.
We are scared for our fellow humans, who have not been so lucky as to be born into a temperate climate, in a rich country which will likely not feel the full effect of climate change for years. People born into tropical or desert regions, and less economically powerful nations, are already suffering increased natural disasters, food and water depletion, and extreme temperatures, both hot and cold. These people are already being killed by climate change; dying in hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, and famine. What will their countries look like in 20 or 30 years? How much of the world will become inhabitable in the near future?

There are those who have met this fear with a revolutionary spirit of hope, who have made it their mission to fight for the Earth, such as the group Extinction Rebellion.
There are others to whom the prospect of this future, this uncertainty, this fear, it is too much; the crippling hopelessness is overwhelming.
I believe you don’t have much choice about which of these categories you fall into, and perhaps the former often develops into the latter, but both sentiments are understandable.
There are also those who chose to stay away from the reality, avoiding news and social media stories they find distressing, in an attempt to prioritise their own peace of mind and mental health, after all, ignorance is bliss.
Not to forget the often-dismissed majority of ordinary working people, who genuinely are unaware of the severity and urgency of climate change; people who are living their lives, working, paying taxes, caring for their children, visiting elderly relatives, cooking dinner in the evenings, keeping their houses clean, doing the shopping, paying the bills, and the hundreds of other tasks and responsibilities that being an adult entails – being understandably consumed by everyday life.
It’s easy for me, a childless 20-something, who lives alone, to spend my time thinking, a lot of people do not have that luxury of time to dwell.

Personally, I am trying to find a happy medium, emphasis on trying. The middle ground where you can feel comforted by the fact that you know you’re trying your best, making environmentally conscious decisions, living responsibly, but not carrying the weight of the issue every day and becoming preachy and unlikeable – despite temptation.

Finding comfort in knowing I’m doing my part is a valuable consolation. After all, one human cannot fix this mess. Even if the majority of individuals in the general public decided to all ‘try their best’ in the same way, we would still not beat climate change. That requires multilateral global cooperation, the breakdown of multi-billion-dollar companies, such as oil giants and manufacturers, and an Earth-wide commitment to finding solutions, which goes above governments, above corporations, and frankly, above money.
What we can do, is try to slow the curve, try to gather evidence, support scientists, support morally driven politicians, and live with ourselves.

The one power we should all possess is the control of our own lives, how we choose to live it, whether we actually abide by our own values and beliefs.

Aside from the obvious, and often overly emphasised methods, of recycling, cutting down on disposable plastic products, driving less, and turning off appliances, there is another way to fight against climate change which is often curiously ignored. Perhaps because people view it as too invasive, too much effort, or not much fun. But in ignoring this method we abandon a key avenue to make a personal difference to the world.
The method I am referencing is the reduction or removal of meat and animal products from our diet.
Why this suggestion is so controversial is bizarre, when comparatively, asking people to buy new electric cars, use public transport, buy different products, and live your life being conscious of waste (electricity and plastic), seems just as invasive and toilsome.

Perhaps tastes, and enjoying familiar foods, are instincts so basal and innate, that the thought of deviating from the routine is almost disturbing, and often greatly aggravating. Nevertheless, at a certain point, a utilitarian and rational approach is necessary, where the benefits so greatly out-weigh the counter arguments that it would be at best irresponsible, and at worst immoral, to ignore them.

In capitalist societies, our main source of power as consumers is our purchasing decisions. We can essentially vote with our money for the changes we want to see. The markets and manufacturing industries react to the simple principle of supply and demand – if consumers buy lots of a product, they make more, if consumers stop buying a product, they make less, or cease production. This has been proven by the sharp increase in the number and variety of vegan options available in UK supermarkets, which was unheard of even 10 years ago, being pushed by the rise of veganism in the public. So, if we stop offering the demand for products we disagree with, their production is no longer economically viable, and their supply will be abandoned. The power is in our hands, or rather, in our wallets.

The fact of the matter is – governments and societies are falling short; the people deciding policies, trade deals, and economic strategies are not placing climate change as their priority.
If the scientific predictions are correct and continue on the same trajectory, the average temperature on Earth will rise by 4°C or more by 2100, which could result in the collapse of farming systems, the disappearing of coastal communities, and widespread droughts (New, Liverman, Schroder, & Anderson, 2011). World leaders are beginning to address these threats, but not with sufficient urgency or radical enough polices.

The UK National Food Strategy released the Dimbleby Report in July 2021: an independent report for the government which studied the problem of food supply and diet in this country. This report contained chapters named ‘The invisibility of nature’, ‘Food and Climate’, ‘The complexity of Meat’, and ‘Carbon negative, Nature positive’, and concluded that we will require significant changes to the national diet, and the way we grow and manufacture our food.

Fig 8.1, is taken directly from the report, and details the carbon footprint and greenhouse emissions of common protein sources, both from animals and plants. This is calculated as gas emissions per 100g of protein, meaning that this figures all display the same amount of protein. In other words, producing 100g of beef protein emits 25 kilograms of greenhouse gases, whereas 100g of protein from tofu produces just 1.6 kilograms.

This figure details the highest and lowest carbon producers, with beef, lamb, shrimp, pork, and cheese, making the top 5 of environmentally worst protein sources, while nuts, peas, and beans can act as carbon negative or neutral. The figure also states that 81% of chicken, 86% of eggs, 70.4% of cows, and 61% of pork, are farmed ‘intensively’, in factory farms. In these cases, hundreds of acres may be flattened to use as grazing or housing, where other organisms cannot survive alongside the livestock, creating monocultures.

Figure 16.1 from the Food Strategy Report presents the changes needed in our diets, in order to protect the environment and our health; a decrease of almost 1/3 of our current meat consumption is required to keep to our Carbon budget and Nature commitments. The status quo of national meat consumption will mean that we overshoot our carbon targets, exacerbating and hastening the coming of climate change.

The report made 4 key recommendations to the government, along with funding requirements and viable real-life plans:
1 – Escape the Junk Food Cycle and Protect the NHS
2 – Reduce diet-related inequality
3 – Make the best use of our land
4 – Create a long-term shift in our food culture.

Recommendation 4 states “This mission should be backed by a new ‘challenge fund’ worth £500 million over five years, with investment distributed by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Crucially, the money should be spent on projects that make the food system better in practice, rather than simply on new ideas. The challenge fund money should be used to help shift the national diet to meet the targets set out at the beginning of this chapter… One of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions and free up land for nature is to cut back on animal proteins. 85% of the land used to feed us is used for livestock farming, even though meat and dairy only account for one third of our calories. Plant-based proteins produce, on average, 70 times less greenhouse gas emissions than an equivalent amount of beef, and use more than 150 times less land… The Government should put £50m towards entrepreneurs and scientists working on alternative proteins. We estimate that developing and manufacturing alternative proteins in the UK, rather than importing them, would create around 10,000 new factory jobs and secure 6,500 jobs in farming (to produce protein crops and other inputs)”.

We can see how much land is being used, both in the UK and abroad, to produce products for us, from figure 9.3. By far the largest proportion is for cow and sheep products, as well as feedstock for farmed animals.

The press and government have focussed their response on the health recommendations made by the report, which claimed obesity and diabetes epidemics, and junk food taxes as a result. While understandably controversial, and important in its own right, the focus on this single recommendation led to the disregarding of the climate proposals.

Years of research by climate scientists reinforce the findings of the 2021 food strategy report; the key to an educated and well-informed balanced society is independent research, and reliable information.
When looking for information, it is important to remember who key lobbyists to the government and advertising industry are. Farmers unions and the meat and dairy industries are extremely powerful globally, and have successfully spearheaded many self-serving campaigns, such as “got milk?”, “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner”, “Milk Does a Body Good,” “The Incredible Edible Egg,” and “Pork. The Other White Meat”.

The source of information is just as important as the information itself. That being said, we must analyse the facts, and the links between our diet and the environmental crisis.
The following statements have been peer reviewed and authenticated, gathered from a variety of sources, from published scientific papers, the references for which are included:

  • 70% of all plastic in the Oceans comes from fishing gear. (Gilman, 2021) (Ritchie, 2018)
  • Cows have the highest water footprint of any food, needing 900 gallons to produce an 8oz steak. In other words, 11365 litres are needed to produce 1 pound of beef.
    1,000 gallons of water are required to produce 1 gallon of milk.
    Beef takes six times more water to produce than lentils, for the same amount of protein. (Siwek, Slawinska, & Dunislawska, 2021) (Pimentel, 2004) (Beckett & Oltjen, 1993) (Hoekstra & Forare, 2008)
  • Bottom trawling (a method of mass netting fish) alone releases as much carbon into the atmosphere as all global air travel combined. This is because the dragging of nets along the seabed disrupts the ocean sediment, releasing the gases stored beneath. Ocean sediments are the largest carbon stores on Earth. (Sala, 2021)
  • Commercial fishing kills 30,000 sharks every hour, and 650,000 whales, dolphins, and seals each year. (Keledjian, 2014) (Forget, 2021)
  • Cattle farms account for 80% of deforested land globally. (The Food and Agriculture Organisation for the United Nations, 2018) (Nepstad, 2008)
  • Soybean agriculture is the second largest driver of deforestation; 80% of all soy grown is then used as feedstock for the meat industry – feeding factory farmed chickens, cows, and pigs all over the world. (Fern: European Commision NGO on People and Forests., 2017) (Veiga, 2002)
  • Animal agriculture accounts for 87% of global greenhouse gas emissions. (Rao, 2021)
  • 26% of all land on Earth is used to raise livestock, and 33% is used for growing animal feed. This land was once forests, marshes, meadows, and other areas of biodiversity and carbon sequestering. (Ritchie, 2019) (Thornton, 2012)
  • Healthy rainforests normally store 200 tons of carbon per hectare within the trees and soil. When you convert this to grassland to graze cows, this drops to 8 tons of carbon per hectare. When the forests are burned, to clear for farms, this carbon is released into the atmosphere. (Mackey, Kormos, & Keith, 2020)

The most common method of land-clearing for agriculture is called ‘slash and burn’, which is a farming method that involves the cutting and burning of plants in a forest or woodland to create a field.
This means that the Amazon is currently releasing more carbon than it can store, due to the burning of trees. (Gatti & Basso, July 2021)

  • About half of the world’s tropical rainforests have been cleared already, an estimated 18 million acres. This currently averages at 36 football fields being destroyed every minute. (Junior & et al., 2021)
  • Animal agriculture is now the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction globally. (Pitkanan, 2021) (Sebo, 2021) (Oksanen & Kortetmaki, 2021) (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2021) (Scheer, 2012) (Machovina, 2015) (Hogan, 2014)
  • If consumption and habitat degradation continues at the current level, it is predicted that the oceans will be empty of fish by somewhere between 2050-2070. (Worm & et al., 2006)
  • In 2006 scientists created a programme called Earth’s Overshoot Day, which marks the date when humanity’s usage for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. In 2021, it falls on July 29. This means that every day after the 29th, we are eating into our reserves, and generating waste and greenhouse gases at an unsustainable level. (Earth Overshoot Day, 2021)
  • In America alone, 5300kg of farm animal excrement is produced every second. This waste is often disposed of in the oceans, producing nitrogen flooding, causing dead zones in huge portions of the sea. (USDA, 2009)
  • Of all the mammals currently on Earth, only 4% are wild animals. The other 96% is made up of livestock and humans. (Smil, 2015)
  • 82% of the worlds starving children live in countries where their primary export is grain. This grain is used as animal feed, and these animals are used to feed people in richer countries. (Oppenlander, 2012) (Good and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2011)
  • If you live in any of the Americas, the environmentally ‘worst’ animal products you could choose to consume would be fish and cow products, because of the immense plastic pollution and habitat destruction that the fishing industry causes, and because the majority of cow products comes from cattle ranches in Central and South America, thereby directly funding the destruction of rainforests.
    However, in the UK and majority of Europe, the worst choices would actually be fish and chicken products: fish, for the reasons just stated, but, because Europe gets the majority of dairy and beef from cattle farms within Europe, it does not directly cause deforestation to the same level. However, the feed for farmed animals in Europe is mainly soybeans, which can only be grown in tropical regions, such as Central and South America, meaning that by purchasing chicken products, you are indirectly funding the soybean industry and its rapid deforestation.

It is not the intention to manipulate or guilt trip, but to inform, ignite, and empower. There are tangible changes we can make as individuals, to stave off the effects of climate change. But if we are to make educated decisions, we must be informed with the facts first.

The other arguments for a low meat, vegetarian, or vegan diet arguably have merit and value, but none have such quantifiable effects on the human race as a whole.

Others may view the facts that: pigs have been proven to be as intelligent as a 3-year-old human, with sentience, emotions, and self-awareness (Mendl, Held, & Byrne, 2010); cows have been proven to show emotion, have distinct personalities, and exhibit social complexity, the forcible removal of calves from mother cows to produce milk is shown to cause such intense emotional distress that they can die from panic (Marino & Allen, 2017); sheep have social structures, relationships, and family units (Palmer & Sandoe, 2019); and chickens have even been shown to exhibit learning and empathy (Marino, 2017); as more or equally valuable to the environmental benefits.
All of the species we use for meat, eggs, and dairy, have been proven to be sentient and experience suffering, but the weight of these statements entirely depends on your own personal moral compass and cannot be dictated by anyone else, but in order inform your own stance on animal cognition you must first have the facts to make the decision.

Health benefits of a low-meat diet have also been increasingly reported, especially the cutting out of red meats. Beef, Veal, Pork and Lamb have been placed in the category of carcinogenic, particularly leading to cancers of the digestive system and breast tissue (Domingo & Nadal, 2017). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) also placed red meat and processed meats in the category of ‘carcinogenic to humans’ (Turesky, 2018). Similarly, regularly consuming red and processed meat is also proven to increase the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack, stroke, and blood clots by 20% (Key & et al., 2019).

The health and moral debates on animal product consumption primarily affect the individual, whereas the environmental effects impact the entire human population.

The real question is then, why aren’t people already changing their diets?
Of course, ignorance contributes, people are often genuinely unaware of the impacts, after all, the facts of animal protein production are hidden behind the propaganda of the meat industry, and the governments deliberate burying of the meat-related recommendations of the Dimbleby Report is one example of many.
Apathy and complacency are a second stumbling block – even those ecologically-minded, who may pride themselves in avoiding plastic packaging, turning off electrical appliances, and recycling, often choose to ignore the facts of the meat industry. Why some environmentalists remain steadfast in their dedication to consuming animal products is a true mystery. On paper, we are willing to agree to much more intrusive methods, such as phasing out petrol stations, replacing every boiler in the UK, buying new cars. Afterall, even a reduction of just 1/3 of meat, cheese, and eggs (such as only eating meat 2 days a week) would hugely offset your personal carbon footprint, potentially more than any other lifestyle change that you could undertake.

But only focussing on these 2 factors would be disregarding a significant cultural attachment to food. Presenting the facts is arguably the smallest part of the battle. Food and cuisine are central to many cultural identities, sometimes on a par with religion. By challenging diet, you challenge deep-seated identity and values (and the countryside landscape) which can make people feel very defensive.

In addition, farmers and other producers and manufacturers, have immense financial incentives to preserve the status quo. A huge kickback would ensue if the government unveiled a policy to cut our animal product production by a third, to represent the suggested cut to our diets. Alternative measures need to be put in place first, to ease the minds of those with investments in the meat industry, such as converting some animal protein producers into plant protein producers (cow farms into bean farms), or other economic incentives such as tax cuts or extra funding for those who decrease meat production. 

These 4 factors combined present a very resistant opposition to the recommendations on meat reduction.

An intermediate solution could be to exclusively purchase ‘ethically sourced’ animal products, from small local farms. This is undeniably better for the environment than supermarkets but expects a level of financial freedom which most people cannot afford. In most cases, buying vegan products, such as vegetables, rice, pasta, bread, and faux meat such as Quorn™, would be overall cheaper than shopping at local farm shops and butchers. If we want the general public to reduce the environmental effects of meat consumption, the solution cannot require privilege. Thereby, a low animal-product diet would be more financially accessible than expecting the entire public to return shopping at family butchers and local farms, which are understandably more expensive.

But a more radical change is needed if we want to see change in our lifetime. Involvement from governments and organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, United Nations, and European Union will be needed to incentivise businesses to act more environmentally responsible.  As well as a shift in public perception of climate change, from some far-away nightmare into the reality, where life as we know it will begin to change within decades, if nothing changes now. Lifestyle, mentality, and policy require extreme changes, to reflect the extreme situation.

Climate change is an extraordinarily complex mess, which often intersects science, politics, and emotion. The detangling of facts from hysteria, creating incentive from complacency are key to finding rational solutions. We have the power to make a difference, no matter how small, in slowing the greatest threat to the lives of future generations we know of. In that, we should take comfort.
If you are feeling a twinge of discomfort, analyse that – is there any hypocrisy between your beliefs and actions, do you feel as though you could be doing more, trying harder?

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Published by amyandkatherine

We are two friends of 12 years, trying to start careers in journalism.

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