Opinion: It is time to kick the beef habit



The time has come to kick out the most climate-damaging meat product from our diets.

By Anders Lorenzen

It is complicated to change our food habits and to change our diet away from one rich in meat products. But if are we to stand a chance of tackling climate change, it is necessary that we do so.

One of the things that seem ever so daunting, even from meat eaters who care about tackling climate change, is to give up meat overnight and switch to a vegetarian or even vegan diet. Therefore so few have chosen to do so. But we are right now seeing a huge cultural shift amongst the younger generation away from meat lifestyles. This shift is fuelled by concerns about animal welfare and rights, the environment and climate change.

But as with changing the energy system, the food system is not much different. It is absolutely right, that while we want transition of the whole energy system away from fossil fuels, the number one priority is first to get rid of coal, the dirtiest and most polluting fossil fuel. We should apply the same priority to the food system.

While in the long run, we must transition 100% away from any meat-based product, in the short term we must kick the habit by focusing on the most damaging to the environment and the one responsible for the highest amount of CO2 emissions. I’m only talking about climate change here, I’m fully aware that there are serious animal welfare questions to be asked about any meat product.

A few years ago I became aware of the fact that not all animal products are created equal when it comes to CO2 emissions. I was aware there was some difference, but it really took me by surprise to learn the huge difference in terms of emissions between, for instance, chicken and beef. In fact, beef is responsible for far greater emissions than any other kind of meat. Therefore, I took the decision as my first step away from meat, to stop eating beef completely. This was a good start

But as I now know it was a bit hypocritical as I would continue to consume milk, butter, cheese and other dairy products. I’m now having another go and am aiming to stop consuming any dairy products, as well as drastically cutting out most meat products, and moving further towards a plant diet. The recent documentary ‘What the Health’ really opened my mind to how damaging the dairy industry is.

Sean Mowbray recently wrote here at A greener life, a greener world that it is not looking good for beef and the climate. In countries, particularly in the far east such as Japan, China etc…, did not, until now, have a huge appetite for beef, but the demand is surging. This means that worldwide the demand is also surging, and it is absolutely clear we have a beef problem.

So how bad is beef?

The quick answer is that it really depends on what you are factoring in. Several studies have come out with somewhat different results, though all pointing in the direction that beef is far worse than any other meat product when it comes to emissions. Of course, where it is produced and how far it is being transported is a big factor. Brazil beef is by far the highest CO2 concentrated beef you can eat due to the massive swathes of Amazon rainforest being cut down to grow it.

So needless to say eating locally produced beef is better than beef grown on the other side of the planet. One study has compared beef to pork and chicken. And the results are staggering. Beef demands 28 times more land and 11 times more water than pork and chicken. And in the book, The Burning Question, Mike Berners-Lee graphs that the emissions for one kilo of UK beef has a carbon footprint of 23 kg CO2e, while for Brazil beef it is 32 kg CO2e, and for pork 9 kg CO2e and chicken around 3kg CO2e.

Therefore it is not rocket science. We really must do everything we can to cut back beef consumption if we are serious about tackling climate change. At the moment trade deals are on everyone’s lips, with the UK desperate for trade deals with the EU and US as they prepare to leave the former. At the same time, Donald Trump and the US want to leave the North American trade deal, NAFTA and have already left the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP). It is now crucial that climate change is factored into those new trade deals. And it should be factored in, in such a way that the trade deals do not encourage beef consumption by trading it between countries.

But more must be done, and I’m quite keen on the idea of a beef tax or even better a carbon tax on all meat products. If implemented the right way, this would make beef products the most expensive animal products. By using those market mechanisms and price signals it could shift people away from beef. There are promising signs that this could happen in New Zealand, as their new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, wants to reform their Emission Trading Scheme to include agriculture industries.

As I mentioned earlier, we are seeing a trend amongst the younger generation to shift away from meat products. This trend is indeed positive, but it is unlikely to be enough when the developing world, the one that is growing fastest in terms of population, is working up an appetite for beef.

An encouraging step is that we are now seeing more and more beef replacement products entering the market. This means there are some alternatives for those who do quite fancy the taste of beef. These products are not yet perfect, but the science in this field is moving quickly, and we are getting closer to replicating the taste of beef without all the nastiness.

While we need to deal with all the CO2 implications of animal agriculture, the production of beef seems the most crucial and so we must tackle this head on.

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