Is eating meat sustainable? This controversial subject has been raised again in a couple of recent academic studies. However, like most areas to do with the environment the whole subject of eating meat is more complicated and less open and shut than it might seem. Some of the issues that need considering are what type of meat, where its grown, where its consumed and if we stop eating it what we eat instead and also where that is grown.
Emissions and energy use (of direct interest to this site) fall into the energy consumption of the feed used to feed cattle, the emissions from the cattle (belching and breaking wind) and the transport of large animals to market and the meat preparation and storage. Plus the use of water. The infographic below from the Environmental Working Group shows the relative carbon emissions for different foods. Please click on the graphic to visit their site which has a lot more info and is well referenced.
There is no doubt that growing grains to feed to beef cattle as happens in the US is crazily inefficient. Ruminants turn a tiny proportion of what they eat into protein. But the situation in the UK is slightly different. Much of our sheep and cattle are raised on marginal land and are largely or solely grass fed. This is particularly the case in Scotland. There are few other agricultural options for this land, although we could grow wood on it for future biofuel. Whilst this grass fed beef gets round the energy use from growing grains as feed it still doesn’t overcome the next objection to eating meat that of methane emissions. These however, come from cattle, eating pork and chicken reduces these emissions greatly (see graph). There is also research going on to vaccinate the cattle against the gut bacteria that cause the problem.
The final issue of eating meat is that of the energy use in the transport, preparation and storage of the meat. This is an issue common to many foods. The best thing to do is to eat as locally grown food as possible (preferably growing some it yourself). As the graph above shows these emissions are surprisingly small for all foods and make-up a minority of the energy use for everything apart from potatoes. In a post oil world though with energy shortages this “post growing” energy use could be an increasing problem.
If we are going to stop eating meat we need to replace the protein. The main alternatives are fish and soya. The graph from EWG gives little information on fish apart from tuna, which has little advantage over chicken and nothing on soya (although Tofu is very low on the graph). But he second paper by Scarborough et al. referenced in the link above on UK food emissions does and they are about the same as tofu. The problem with fish and soya is that neither are very sustainable. Fish stocks are being overfished and soya is mostly grown in the tropics intensively, with issue of rainforest deforestation. There is little point in growing soya when we release the carbon from trees chopped down to grow it on into the atmosphere. In addition a lot of soya is used to feed cattle and fish.
I hope you have seen from the post that the issue of what to eat to reduce your environmental impact is not simple. I think there are a number of key points.
- Eat less meat.
- If you do eat meat, eat chicken or pork.
- Cut down on cheese and milk.
- Minimise waste at your end.
- Eat as locally as possible (grow as much as you can yourself).
There are good health reasons to do much of the above.
Finally a word on vegetarianism in the bible. Genesis 1v29-30 seems to suggest anything is permissible to eat as does Acts10v9-15. Paul suggests (Rom 14v2-3) believers who eat or don’t eat meat should not look down on their fellow believer who does the opposite. As a Christian I am think the bible is neutral on the issue and its up to individual conscience (1 Tim4v1-4).
the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit Rom14v17
I’m starting to look at my meat consumption. The paper from Scarborough et al. suggests around a 100g of meat person per day doubles emissions and its very easy to eat that much. I’m going to see if I can aim for 50g, I have already cut my dairy consumption back hard (eating almost no cheese).