Talking points

Global warming: meat and morals

Could our land be put to better use?

Whatever else we do to curb global warming, it will be pointless if we don’t make drastic changes to agriculture and human diets. In particular, people in rich countries need to eat a great deal less meat. That was the conclusion of a special report published last week by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said Quirin Schiermeier in Nature. The report argues that moving to a plant-based diet would free up millions of square kilometres of land. If the world population ate no meat or dairy at all, global CO2 emissions would be reduced by some eight billion tonnes per year (total emissions last year were 37 billion tonnes). Eating meat or seafood only once a month would reduce emissions by six billion tonnes.

Meat-eating is an environmental disaster, said George Monbiot in The Guardian. In Britain, an astonishing 55% of arable land (as well as nearly all pasture land) is used to grow food for livestock. If that land were turned over to providing grains, beans, fruit, vegetables and nuts for humans, “farming in this country could feed everyone, without the need for imports”. The land now used for grazing animals could be left fallow, allowing natural eco-systems to be restored. This would absorb an “astonishing” quantity of CO2, and help bring the world back from the brink of “ecological collapse”. Actually, if you look at the IPCC report, it doesn’t tell people to drop meat, said Charles Moore in The Daily Telegraph. It merely suggests that “diversification” of the agricultural system might be beneficial. But that hasn’t stopped the “green evangelicals” from telling us that meat is morally wrong. What we are seeing is the beginning of a culture war. “Steakhouses will be picketed. Planning permission for shops selling meat will be objected to.” Children from carnivore homes will be “re-educated”.

The IPCC isn’t commanding people to turn vegetarian, said The Times. But it does have a sensible message. The world population has ballooned, and the number of animals reared to feed them has grown still faster, placing great stress on the world’s farmlands. This doesn’t mean that we must stop eating meat altogether. Grasslands, sustainably grazed, can have benefits; while some crops used to replace meat and dairy – almonds, quinoa, avocados – can “wreak environmental havoc”. And Western eating habits are only one factor in a much bigger picture described in the report: the destruction of forests and wetlands and the degradation of soil across the world. British consumers can play their part by moderating their meat intake. “But these are global challenges and they will require global action.”