A war on meat won’t save the planet

Matteo Baccaglini

Before the pandemic closed universities, the latest craze to sweep student politics was “the beef ban motion”. Inspired by similar policies at the universities of Cambridge, King’s College London and Goldsmiths, students across the country called for their student unions and universities to stop selling beef products.

These beef ban motions have proved almost universally unpopular. Despite extensive opposition, only one student union – the London School of Economics – still has a beef ban motion in effect. In East Anglia, students overturned a successful motion after widespread outrage. In a university-wide referendum in Edinburgh, 58 per cent of voters reversed their student union’s decision. Bristol’s student union rejected its beef ban motion outright. Oxford’s deferred it to consultation.

Now, Enfield council has volunteered to test whether such a proposal will meet the same opprobrium outside the student world. From December this year, the London borough council’s catering team will offer only vegan and vegetarian options for its events.

It’s a tiny policy change, buried 36 pages deep into the council’s climate action plan for 2020. It probably didn’t merit the attention of major newspapers. Even so, the move marks new territory in the war against meat that risks misguiding the climate movement.

For sure, the meat industry contributes to global warming. Livestock supply chains account for 14.5 per cent of the world’s anthropogenic emissions. In particular, beef is more land, water and emissions-intensive than other livestock categories. Producing beef and lamb emits six times more greenhouse gas per gram of protein than pork or poultry, and 250 times more than legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and beans.

Yet it’s easy to overplay meat’s contribution to the climate crisis – and supporters of meat bans regularly fall into this trap.

Two years ago, leading news sites including The Guardian and The Independent ran article headlines citing the co-author of a study, who claimed that “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.” The claim was repeated by supporters of the beef ban motion at the LSE and in a recent guide for universities “looking to make the change towards plant-based alternatives”.

Except that’s not what the study shows. The paper looked at ways of mitigating agricultural emissions and concluded that consumers consuming less meat will reduce these emissions by more than producers changing practices or adopting new technologies. Much of this benefit comes from moving land use away from agriculture, which requires a phenomenal drop in the demand for meat.

The study prescribed a diet which, if followed by the average American, would reduce their food emissions – not their total emissions – by up to 73 per cent. That diet means no meat, fish, milk, butter or other animal products, as well as a reduction in chocolate, coffee, alcohol, spices, fruits, cereals, rice and potatoes.

It’s a heavy sacrifice for little gain. Other studies have instead investigated the relative impact of meat on our total emissions footprint. One study found that following a plant-based diet for a year reduces your emissions by less than foregoing an economy-class return flight between London and Athens. On average, three times as many tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent can be saved by living car-free, and 73 times as many by having one fewer child.

In a separate meta-analysis of over 7,000 studies, researchers listed six ways of reducing your emissions footprint that are more effective than a vegan diet. These included using public transport, switching to renewable energy and renovating your home.

The statistics agree. In the UK, agriculture accounts for 10 per cent of our emissions. By contrast, transport accounts for 28 per cent, energy 23 per cent, businesses 18 per cent and residential output 15 per cent. These figures include methane emissions, which constitute a larger percentage of agricultural emissions but remain in the atmosphere for fewer years relative to other greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, just because going vegan might not be the best way to reduce our total emissions, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reduce our food emissions at all. But if we overestimate the benefits of a policy, we can misdirect resources towards ineffective solutions, become complacent about how much impact our efforts actually have and shut ourselves off to better ideas.

This could be what happened at the University of Cambridge. It estimated that its food policy change in 2016 – which banned beef and lamb, sourced more sustainably-produced fish and decreased its overall meat offerings – reduced its food-related carbon emissions by 10.5 per cent over three years. (This figure does not account for any students who may have switched to eating outside the university’s eateries.)

But over the same period, the university spent over £13m on 17,545 flights, generating over ten times more carbon emissions than the food policy saved.

Besides, there are other costs inflicted by meat prohibition. When beef ban motions knocked on the doors of Oxford and Bristol, students warned about the impact on those living with disabilities, allergies and eating disorders. For example, the high-quality iron content provided by beef means that it is recommended by medical experts for those living with anaemia. Restricting their choice threatens to worsen their health.

Even banning only the most emissions-intensive meat products could prove difficult. Many religious minorities, including Jews and Muslims, are restricted in which commonly-available meats they can eat. They would be disproportionately hurt by any beef ban.

Depending on your ethical persuasion, perhaps the only convincing argument in favour of meat prohibition might be on grounds of animal welfare. Indeed, animal rights campaigners have been leading the beef ban motions – even if the proposals largely promoted their environmental benefits. Both the Oxford and LSE beef ban motions were filed by campus representatives of PETA, a US-based animal welfare activist group. Whether we agree with them is a judgment we each have to make for ourselves.

Even short of abstinence, there is much that we can do individually and voluntarily to reduce our food emissions. If farmers worldwide adopted the practices of the tenth percentile of producers with the lowest emissions intensities, greenhouse gas emissions from cattle could be reduced by over 62 per cent.

So let’s buy only from low-emission producers. British beef is 40 per cent as emissions-intensive as the average worldwide. It emits a third of the emissions of South American beef, where the Amazon is being horrendously deforested to make way for low-density pastures.

Additionally, in England and Wales, the national farming union has developed a strategic plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. This comes from better farming practices, such as improved feed additives and precision farming, planting more woodland and hedgerows and displacing fossil fuels with land-based renewables. Let’s keep the industry to account on its promises.

Other technological changes can also reduce our food emissions. Let’s invest in them. Globally, genetic engineering, largely forbidden under EU rules, has decreased emissions by reducing the use of herbicides and insecticides, improving the health of crops and facilitating cuts in fuel use and tillage changes. Further genetic engineering could reduce the emissions produced by livestock grazing, while engineering organisms themselves could accelerate selective breeding to make cattle less emissions-intensive – although this raises important ethical implications.

The most promising innovation comes from meat cultured from animal muscle cell. Ultimately, many people enjoy eating meat – something which needs neither justification nor approval. In the ideal world, meat-lovers would be able to munch on their burgers and steaks without worrying about their environmental impact, their health or animal welfare. That’s exactly the future that has long been promised by lab-grown meat. If those promises come true, the whole war on meat is living on borrowed time, speaking to a discussion already nearing its expiry date.

Still, none of this on its own will save the planet. Agriculture just isn’t a sufficiently large source of emissions to do so.

We can drastically cut down on our food emissions – and, of course, we should. Every little helps. But we ought not to lose sight of where and how the greatest savings in emissions can be made. If Enfield council’s war on meat proves as unpopular as it was in campuses across the country, the political energy expended on it might be best preserved for a more worthwhile front in the struggle against global warming.

Written by Matteo Baccaglini

Matteo Baccaglini is a political commentator. He is a former president of the Oxford Hayek Society.

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