Reducing your carbon footprint by eating less red meat rarely gets attention. This strategy has been recommended by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, epidemiologists writing in The Lancet and a host of other highly-regarded researchers and organisations. But it appears we don’t want to be put off our food by acknowledging the implications of our Western diet.
Our own Australian Bureau of Statistics does not seem to deem food consumption analysis as a priority – the most recent ABS apparent consumption figures date from 1998 to 1999. The last National Nutrition Survey was conducted in 1995-1996. How can government agencies deliberate, recommend and act on food policies when they don’t even measure the basics?
A preliminary analysis of major Australian newspapers indicates “meaty” topics mainly revolve around cuisine and culture. (Part of my research is looking at how media deals with this issue.) A study of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, The Herald-Sun and The Financial Review from June 2007 to June 2012 examining over 14,700 articles which referred to keywords “meat” or “livestock” found less than .01% mentioned meat or livestock’s impacts on climate change or greenhouse gases. An in-depth US analysis found that between September 2005 and January 2008, 16 of the United States’ largest circulation newspapers largely overlooked the food system as one of the most important contributors to global climate change.
But we do know that the Food and Agriculture Organization report Livestock’s Long Shadow indicates that meat and dairy products are the foods carrying the greatest environmental burden. They account for approximately half of food-generated greenhouse gas emissions and 18% of global emissions.
The Australian Department of Climate Change’s National Inventory Report (2009) stated that the agriculture sector produces most of Australia’s methane and nitrous oxide emissions with agriculture producing an estimated 15.5% of net emissions between 2008 and 2009. Enteric fermentation, primarily from cattle and sheep, contributed 64.4% of agricultural emissions. Manure management contributed 3.9%.
Worldwide, livestock and meat production have also been identified as major contributors to intensive water use, high phosphorus use (another urgent and overlooked issue), land degradation and threats to food yields and loss of biodiversity.
Adverse health consequences such as cardiovascular diseases and some cancers are associated with high meat diets. McMichael et al, writing in The Lancet (2007), reported: “A substantial contraction in meat consumption in high-income countries should benefit health, mainly by reducing the risk of ischaemic heart disease (especially related to saturated fat in domesticated animal products), obesity, colorectal cancer, and, perhaps, some other cancers.” Ethical concerns about the treatment of animals are also part of the meat consumption debate.
The Lancet report above proposes an international contraction and convergence strategy to reduce the average consumption of animal products. High-consuming countries lower their consumption in order to allow low-consuming countries an increase in animal product consumption.
The Lancet authors propose 90g of meat per day as a working global target with “not more than 50g per day coming from red meat from ruminants”.
The 1998 to 1999 ABS apparent consumption figures suggest average meat consumption is 304g per day, of which at least 126g is from beef and lamb (see also, Sustainable and secure food systems for Victoria).
The 1995 to 1996 National Nutrition Survey recorded men and women eating an average of 158g of meat (lamb, beef, veal, pig and poultry) per day. Of the 158g per day, 114g was from lamb, beef, veal and pig. With poultry included, men consumed on average 200g and women 116g.
Looking at the ABS total red meat and livestock slaughter figures suggests numbers are still high. The correlating consumption figures would in all probability not have diminished at the rate the contraction and convergence strategy recommends.
The good news is that your meal does not have to be spoilt by the act of reducing meat consumption. Vegetarianism is not going to be embraced by everybody, but we can learn to enjoy other protein foods and reach a level of meat eating that offers equity, health and environmental benefits. There are many ways to do this.
You can go vegetarian once a week - the highly effective Meat Free Mondays campaign has been proven to enlighten people on life beyond meat and even improve business for participating food suppliers and hospitality organisations. Taking a “flexitarian” approach means incorporating more vegetarian meals into the diet.
You can eat more Novel Protein Foods (or “fake meat”) where plant proteins are partially substituted for meat proteins in ground meat and processed meat products.
Technological and structural mitigation options such as changes in feeding, breeding and managing animals to keep N₂O and CH₄ emissions down applied to the meat and livestock industry could reduce greenhouse gases by 15 to 20%. But these innovations are unlikely to achieve the deep emission cuts that are needed. There is a strong case for also reducing consumption of livestock and meat products to help reduce greenhouse gases – and many other impacts.
With the evidence so clear of the link between heavy consumption of red meat and adverse environmental and health impacts, it is important to ask why this issue has not been on the table to date.
There are a number of possible reasons, all of which can be countered. First, the diet and environment issue has been hijacked by a polarised debate between meat eaters and vegetarians as if there are only two options available. While vegetarianism embraces important and noble ethical concerns, environmentally, there is a road in between.
Second, industry and lobby groups have traditionally had much economic and political power. They push heavy consumption and meat marketing campaigns which target our insecurities, attempting to convince us our brain development is linked to hearty meat intake. Religious and cultural associations are definitely there as well but the sacrificial lamb was just that - a special offering that was not delivered every day.