Climate change is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges faced by humanity today. Without drastic action, the rise in global temperatures could take us well above the 2°C limit agreed at the recent Paris Agreements.
Ask anyone what they think is the biggest contributor to Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHG) in the world, and they might suggest cars, trains, or maybe planes. The reality is that livestock farming accounts for almost 15% of all GHGs, which is more than all the above combined. This means the food on our plates is the main culprit in the rapidly unfolding climate change saga.
Costing the earth
Listening to a recent BBC radio programme, 'Costing the Earth', I was struck by just how wildly polarised the debate on our diets can be. Here, four experts with different views and beliefs laid out their 'menu to save the planet'. Which combination of foods can offer the best 3-course 'low-carbon dinner'? So, here are the panellists' proposed menus:
- A vegan menu with a green pea soup starter, lentil and mash potato pie main, and traditional rhubarb and custard dessert
- An 'Ecological leftovers' menu with waste-fed pork, borlotti beans and dumplings followed by stale bread and on-the-turn butter pudding
- Rocket salad, GMO salmon, and imported mango (with a aside explaining that the issue of food miles has been somewhat overblown)
- An intensively farmed, high-tech menu of hydroponics-grown peppers and tomatoes, factory-farmed pork, and mature Cheddar from a 'high-tech self-sufficient cheese manufacturer using solar panels'
With so many differing viewpoints on how to achieve carbon emission reductions, how can we be sure we are going down the right path?
A holistic approach
Any solution to the problem needs to be holistic in its approach and its outcome. If you solve one problem but by doing so create another, then you risk doing more harm than good. Take for example the intensively farmed pork on the menu: it's all very well cramming hundreds of pigs into sheds where they never see the light of day, but what about the pigs' welfare? Is animal suffering not an issue we are willing to consider in our quest to do good and save the world?
Another proposed solution is GMO salmon. What the panellist fails to mention here, is that accelerated growth in fish can cause harmful deformities such as difficulties breathing and feeding, and reduced swimming abilities. If GMO salmon escape from fish farms they are likely to undermine wild salmon stocks as they will outcompete them for food and spread disease. Genetic modification, rather than respecting animals as sentient beings, regards them as resources placed in this world for our convenience, to manipulate as we wish.
A vegan diet can certainly be commended for having minimal impact on the environment, however as we know all too well the vast majority of people will not even consider giving up meat. It is vital therefore, to allow for farming systems to develop which are both kind to animals and the environment.
With that in mind, a menu for saving the planet could look like this:
Leek quiche made with organic eggs
Pasture-fed rosé veal and locally-grown roast potatoes
A small portion of vegan sticky toffee pudding
Pasture's the answer
As an 'unwanted' by-product of the dairy industry, male dairy calves can often face a very sorry fate. They are shot at birth, or arguably worse, exported for slaughter. There is a better way - and a solution to many of the problems faced in livestock farming - raising on pasture.
Intensively-raised animals are fed vast quantities of grain, which if fed directly to humans, would produce more calories than the meat from the animal. With so much of the world's land surface covered in pasture, would the common-sense approach to farming not be letting animals return to the land where they can add to the global food basket, rather than take away?
By raising animals on pasture or waste, we're turning something we can't eat into something we can - and the upshot is a method of farming which provides a far better life for the animals. Not only that, but there is the benefit of the storage of carbon in grassland and provision of wildlife habitat, from insects to the farmland birds that prey on them.
Therefore, for those who choose to eat meat, what excuse is there to not opt for pasture-fed?
Produce better, waste less
The argument that we need to intensify food production to satisfy the demand of the growing population completely misses the point. This reasoning is the myth of 'sustainable intensification' yet again rearing its ugly head, and we must do all we can to dispel it. We don't need to produce more. We need to produce better, and vitally, we need to waste less - be it on the farm, at home, and everywhere in between.