Almost 15% of global greenhouse emissions come from cows farting. That’s an exageration, but there’s some truth to it. Methane emissions from livestock, as well as associated land clearance and fertiliser use, contribute more to global warming than all the cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships in the world combined.
Too much meat is also bad for our health. People in rich countries already eat much more than is healthy for them (and people in developing countries are catching up), pushing up rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. The average family in the UK, for example, would have to cut meat consumption by half just to get to healthy levels.
In June 2016, the Chinese government announced new dietary guidelines aimed at cutting meat consumption in China by 50%. Chinese consumers currently chow down on 28% of the world’s meat (and half of all pork), and the government hopes that eating less meat will improve public health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to one billion tonnes by the year 2030.
Proponents of such a move argue that they are not advocating global vegetarianism, but rather would like to see people globally consuming healthy levels of meat. If couched in terms of health and environmentalism, would efforts to put less meat on our plates be more palatable to consumers?
We had a question sent in from Tony, asking whether Europeans should be encouraged to eat less meat. To get a response, we put Tony’s question to Laura Wellesley, Research Associate in Energy, Environment and Resources at Chatham House (which is currently running a project looking at diets and climate change). How would she respond?
I do think we should be encouraging Europeans to eat less meat, at least at an aggregate level. Europeans are eating on average twice as much as experts think is healthy, but also far more than is environmentally sustainable. We know that livestock production and over-consumption of meat is a major driver of climate change, and unless we reduce the amount that we eat it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to meet the targets that we’ve agreed internationally to limit global warming to 2 degrees.
For another reaction, we also put Laura’s question to Mike Rayner, Professor of Population Health at the Nuffield Department of Population Health. What would he say to Tony?
The simple answer to that question is: Yes. I think people should be cutting their meat consumption by about 50% or more. That’s what the Chinese have just advised their citizens to do, so that’s what we should be doing here as well.
We had a comment come in from Nando, who argued that eating meat is a central part of European food culture. So, how can Europeans be encouraged to eat more sustainably, given that meat is so important to our diets and way of life?
Yes, that’s a good question. I don’t think it’s just about education. I think it’s about making it easier for people to eat less meat. So, I would put taxes on meat, for example, to raise the price of meat, and particularly red meat and processed meat, in order to encourage people to eat less meat.
Should we all eat less meat? Would a ‘meat tax’ encourage people to eat more sustainably? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!