The article below is a referenced version of my piece that appeared in the Weekend Edition of the Irish Times on Saturday last. Writers don’t get to choose the headlines –’Meat is madness’ – my preference would have been to emphasise the stark choice we face: unbridled meat consumption locks in climate havoc, yet compared to other swingeing lifestyle changes we face, cutting back sharply on meat is in fact among the least unpalatable. Lack of awareness that meat (especially from ruminants) is a key driver in just about every environmental crisis you can mention, is widespread. That’s what this article is really about addressing.
IRELAND HAS a serious obesity problem. By 2030, this will have spiralled into a full-blown public health emergency. World Health Organisation projections show that, on current trends, one in two Irish adults will be clinically obese within 15 years.
Ireland also finds itself among the very worst in the league table of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, where we are 45 per cent above the EU average in per capita emissions. And, despite binding international commitments to rapidly reduce this pollution, data from the Environment Protection Agency confirms our emissions, like our waistlines, are instead continuing to expand.
At first glance, there might seem little to connect GHG emissions with an obesity epidemic, but they can also be seen as two sides of the same dysfunctional coin. This is the conclusion of a major new study from researchers at Oxford University.
The current global food production and marketing system is generating a glut of cheap processed meats which are fuelling dangerous climate change while also feeding a pandemic of diet-related ill health which is costing between $700 billion and $1 trillion a year in healthcare and related costs.
If people in developed countries like Ireland and the US simply ate no more than the recommended levels of meat, some 5.1 million premature deaths could be avoided by 2050, according to the Oxford study. They further calculated that a worldwide switch to a vegetarian diet would yield 7.3 million lives saved.
While these would be welcome reductions in ill health, hospitalisation and premature death from heart disease, cancers and diabetes, the carbon dividend of such a dietary transformation is no less significant. Researchers calculated that reining in our meat consumption to the recommended levels would cut GHG emissions from agriculture by a hefty 29 per cent.
A global shift to a vegetarian diet would deliver a profound reduction in agricultural GHG emissions, slashing them by 63 per cent, while also easing a host of related chronic ecological problems, from deforestation to desertification, eutrophication and water stress.
This would have the vital co-benefit of also freeing the land available to grow food directly for humans and so reducing hunger levels among the poor.
Globally, the production of just meat and dairy products generates some 14.5 per cent of all emissions – this is greater than the output of every car, bus, lorry, train and ship in the world – combined.
The influential UK think tank, the Chatham House institute in 2014 produced a study that found low levels of awareness among the public about the true costs of their dietary choices. However, “consumers with a higher level of awareness were more likely to indicate willingness to reduce their meat and dairy consumption for climate objectives”.
Closing what they call the “awareness gap” is a vital first step. The study noted the “striking paucity of efforts” to rein in consumption. They also suggest that both governments and environmental groups have been “reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to shift consumer behaviour”.
The reason seems to be the fear of backlash, principally from powerful vested interest groups, and in few countries is this more apparent than Ireland, where national food policy is shaped primarily by the agri-industrial lobby.
It’s worth considering what is at stake. “Without a significant reduction in global meat-eating, keeping global warming below 2˚C will be nearly impossible. Tackling unsustainable meat consumption is therefore a necessity”, the Chatham House report added.
Left unchecked, by 2050, global meat and dairy consumption will have risen by 76 per cent compared with today, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This would represent a lethal double whammy for both human health and the biosphere.
Change in human behaviour is difficult, but not impossible, to achieve. A separate study by researchers at Reading and Oxford universities recommended taxing the ‘carbon footprint’ of foods such as beef and dairy products to reflect their true health and environmental costs.
They warned, however, of the risk of pushing the public towards sweeter dietary options that are equally unhealthy. Their solution: a CO2 tax of around €4 per tonne on high-emissions foods combined with a 20 per cent sales tax on sugary drinks. They estimated this intervention alone would reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas output by 18.5 million tonnes, while avoiding some 1,250 premature deaths annually.
The practical impact of such a tax would be to significantly push up the price of red meat, including beef and lamb, which could lead to a 20 per cent drop in consumption.
Shortly after this study was published, the UK government took the unexpected step of introducing a levy on sugary drinks. The Irish industry, backed by finance minister Michael Noonan, has been quick to decry such a move here. Taxes do work. A 10 per cent tax in Mexico on sugary drinks saw consumption fall by 12 per cent within a year.
The Irish agribusiness lobby is, unsurprisingly, fiercely opposed to levies on high carbon foods. Ireland’s national beef herd comprises over five million animals, with another 1.2 million dairy cows. The dairy sector, following the euphoria of last year’s lifting of quotas, is now in crisis as milk prices have slumped to barely the cost of production.
Dramatic expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd has run roughshod over our need to sharply cut agricultural emissions, which today count for around a third of all our GHGs. Irish taxpayers may soon be facing multi-billion euro EU fines as a result of this complete failure to manage either agriculture or transport-related emissions.
While dairy farmers struggle, the beef sector remains on life support, surviving thanks to massive EU transfers. Prof Alan Matthews of TCD quoted Teagasc figures last year confirming that, were it not for EU subsidies of around €400 per hectare, beef farming “could not continue”. If, he explained, “you were to add in the additional costs of greenhouse gases, those net margins would be even more negative”.
As a way of making food, beef production is strikingly inefficient. “Beef has one of the lowest ‘feed-to-food’ conversion efficiencies of commonly consumed foods. Only 1 per cent of gross cattle feed energy and 4 per cent of ingested protein are converted to human-edible calories and protein. As a result, beef uses more land and freshwater, and generates more GHG emissions per unit of protein than other commonly consumed food”, according to the 2016 Global Food Policy Report.
Defence of our high-emissions national agricultural policy is often based on the argument that, as a ‘food island’, we are a special case. This claim is severely dented by FAO data for 2011, which shows that Ireland is in fact a net importer of food calories – shockingly, we import food calories for 1.4 million people more than we export for. Rather than Ireland feeding the world, we’re not even feeding ourselves, according to research to be presented later this month in NUI Galway by Dr. Colin Doyle.
Shifting away from an excessively meat-based diet will directly benefit human health, while reducing hunger among the poor, easing animal welfare concerns and offering farmers a genuinely sustainable future.
High-tech alternatives, such as ‘Beyond Meat’ are fast emerging, using plant-based ingredients to closely mimic the taste, texture and smells that make meat so alluring, while trimming the health impacts and global environmental havoc our ancient carnal predilections are now wreaking.