Can quitting meat significantly help climate change?

The amount of grains fed to US livestock is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet. Is it time to give up meat?

Darian Meacham
7 June 2017

Meat Lover, Marius Boatca/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Like anyone who purports to care in the least about the future of our planet, I am saddened and angered by Trump’s decision to pull out of the (voluntary, non-binding, and hence not much more than symbolic) Paris Climate Agreement. As a parent of two young children, I am also frightened about what kind of physical, social and political impacts climate change will have on their lives. My children are lucky enough to have been born relatively rich in a rich part of the world. Nonetheless, they will undoubtedly live in a less hospitable and more volatile environment than the one in which I grew up.

The long-term effects of global inaction on climate change will be strikingly worse for the nearly two billion children living in the developing world. Climate change resulting from human activity is already having a negative impact on the availability of arable land, the sustainability of aquatic life, biodiversity, and the overall capacity of the planet to support human life – the UN’s 2016 report on Climate change, agriculture and food security make for alarming reading.

In the face of global catastrophe, it is easy to feel powerless. It is also difficult to enact major lifestyle changes. Too often my own laziness and comfort corrupt my will to take actions that I know to be right; especially when those actions relate to impacts and events that are for the moment far removed from my day-to-day life. I still drive and take airplanes. I recycle but could take obvious further steps to reduce my levels of consumption. One thing that I am trying not to do anymore is eating meat.

There are few things that I enjoy more than standing over the glowing coals of a barbecue with a cold beer in my hand and a steak sizzling on the grill.

The decision to become a vegetarian was an easy one, actually doing it is less so. I love meat. To point out the obvious, I devote(d) a fair amount of time to searching out, eating and writing about steak tartare in all its wonderful variations. There are few things that I enjoy more than standing over the glowing coals of a barbecue with a cold beer in my hand and a steak sizzling on the grill. But, at a point, the knowledge that I was voluntarily facilitating the destruction of the planet that my children would have to live on simply for the sake of fleeting gastronomic pleasures became too much.

In a sense, I have my role as director for ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ at BrisSynBio (a UK government funded academic synthetic biology research centre) to thank for my conversion. It was in this context that, a few years ago, I listened to a presentation from the Swiss agrochemical conglomerate Syngenta on crop yields, and learned that 42% of European wheat production went toward livestock feed. To sustain growing rates of global wheat production technological fixes, including genetic engineering, would likely be necessary to improve crop yields in an increasingly hostile climate.

While I have no per se objection to genetic modification of crops, another at least partial solution is obvious: we could stop eating so much meat. Animal agriculture is a terribly inefficient way to produce food. It takes 15000 litres of water to produce one kilo of beef, more than ten times what it takes to produce a kilo of wheat or maize. The amount of feed grains necessary to sustain a lactovegetarian diet is roughly half of what is necessary to maintain an average American meat-based diet (Europeans eat slightly less meat). To put this another way, the amount of grains fed to US livestock is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet. Meat “accounts for 17% of global calorific intake, but uses twice that amount of land, water and feed.” Reducing meat consumption would also allow for crop diversification and reforestation.

To put this another way, the amount of grains fed to US livestock is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet.

In my work for BrisSynBio, I was also lucky enough, last June, to hear a presentation on amazing work being done at other universities to build vaccine delivery systems for use in intensive swine farming. This kind of thing is extremely important to human as well as pig health since, as The Economist reports: “animals form a significant reservoir of diseases that affect human…60% of human diseases are shared with animals and three-quarters of new infectious diseases of people were first found in animals.”

Again, there is, of course, a simpler solution. We could stop intensive swine farming and focus the limited resources devoted to scientific research on ways to mitigate climate change rather than facilitate it. A key idea behind the notion of “responsible innovation” is to try to think ambitiously about alternative solutions to social challenges. In this case, I’m not sure that reducing meat consumption qualifies as an alternative – it’s the most apparent.

According to the EPA, agriculture and forestry accounts for twenty-four percent of global greenhouse emissions. 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions come from global livestock, with 65% of that coming from cattle, that’s more than the emissions from the global transport sector (14% according to the EPA). Eighty percent of Amazon deforestation is for livestock grazing.

I cannot preach; giving up meat, at least for me, is a journey. I have relapses, but I’m trying. If a significant number of people in North America and Europe can reduce their levels of meat consumption to something resembling the lactovegetarian diets more common in other parts of the world, it will have a meaningful impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, facilitate crop diversification, and limit deforestation. This is not to mention the health benefits. And you will never have to worry about inadvertently eating a Trump Steak again.

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