For the last few months, I have given up what was previously one of my favourite foods: beef. Eating less red meat can be healthier, better for the environment and – surprisingly to me – really easy to do so.
Sometimes it seems like much of our food is stuck in a cycle of excessive production and excessive consumption. However as a wonderful lady called Christina from James Cameron’s foundation explained to me, there are simple changes we can make in our everyday life that could have an impact.
Meat consumption today contributes to global warming and environmental degradation. It’s estimated that 14.5% of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock – which is more than the contribution from all forms of transport. Beef production makes up 41% of those emissions.
Last year, Brazil reported a 28% increase in Amazonian deforestation - 80% of deforested land in Brazil is then used for cattle farming. This results in a huge loss of biodiversity. Modern beef farming is also a huge drain on water resources. A 2010 study calculated that it takes 1799 gallons of water to make just 1lb of beef.
But it is possible to change. Reducing meat consumption is a growing trend, driven by health and environmental considerations. A switch to a ‘healthy diet’ as recommended by Harvard Medical School – which still includes eating meat, fish and eggs – would reduce GHG emissions from food production by 36%. The Norwegian military announced it is switching to a one-day-a-week vegetarian diet in a move to combat global warming, while even in the US consumption of red-meat is falling.
And as for yours truly, I feel healthier, more active and by making my diet more varied I never feel like I’m missing out on anything. Stopping eating beef has also had a knock-on effect on the rest of my diet, and I am eating less.
Cattle and other livestock don’t have to be environmentally harmful. Cows, pigs, sheep and chickens did not evolve to be shoved in a large, dark warehouse and pumped full of feed. Grass-fed cattle raised on pasture need much smaller resource inputs. And as people like Earth Challenge finalist Allan Savory have shown, livestock, if managed properly, can even restore degraded land.
In the longer term, as Bill Gates recently highlighted, there is also great potential for advances in fields like synthetic meat. And there are other more sources of efficient protein; like insects! But in a world where more people are now dying from obesity than malnutrition – when hundreds of millions of people still don’t have enough to eat – and when it’s estimated that 70% more food will be needed by 2050, we can’t solve this problem by simply continuing to make ‘conventional’ intensive farming more intensive. And reducing our consumption would reduce the need for these industries to keep up with that demand.
Persuading people to give up meat altogether is very difficult, but persuading meat eaters to cut out beef is realistic. Do you think you could cut out beef from your diet, or are you already vegetarian/vegan? Let us know your views.