Debate: Meat or the Climate? Pick One!

2009•10•08 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

Meat free Mondays has to be the way to go. Former Beatle Paul McCartney backs it. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, advocates it.

But somehow the reaction you mostly get for proposing such a thing is criticism rather than praise. We love our meat. Our meat industry loves our meat. Our political leaders love our meat. You can’t expect people to turn vegetarian, even one day a week, simply because it might help save the planet.

Health ministers, like Ben Bradshaw from the UK, will step in and say that they don’t suspect meat consumption is a big contributor to climate change. Or some will  argue that there are more useful things you can do to reduce your carbon emissions than giving up meat. This seems to be the common comeback to most calls for personal action to reduce emissions.  Save energy at home rather than flying. Or rather than giving up meat, give up flying instead. Always one cop out or another.

But where do we get the idea that meat eating is bad for the climate? It seems every one points to a 2006 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation that found that the meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than all the SUVs, cars, trucks, planes, and ships in the world combined.

The report, entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, claimed that meat production accounts for about 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions (download the report from the sidebar above to learn more).

Perhaps one way to respond is to try to clean up the meat industry and find ways to reduce the associated emissions directly from the ‘sources’ mouths’ (changing feeding practices to reduce methane emissions from cattle).  That would be very nice, because it means I don’t have to do anything at all.

But then again, maybe it is also about you and I making different decisions about how much meat we should eat. We could begin by following Meatless Mondays and gradually reducing the amount of meat we eat until we become vegetarian.

What do you think? Have you stopped eating meat? Have you reduced your meat consumption? Or are you happy to carry on chomping those burgers and steaks?

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Debate 2.0: Meat or the Climate? Pick One! by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for the Study of Co*Design. He teaches and undertakes research as part of the Co-creation Design Division. His core areas of expertise include urban transitions, ethical cities, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). At UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.

Join the Discussion

  • Helene B

    “the meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than all the SUVs, cars, trucks, planes, and ships in the world combined.”

    WOW, I never thought of it that way!

  • I realize that meat production releases many greenhouse gases. But we use livestock for other purposes–for instance, to produce dairy products. Do we use the same livestock for both purposes or is there a clear distinction?

  • markolsthoorn

    Meat production requires 80% of agricultural land to produce just 15% of the calories. OK, not all pasture land is suitable for high-productivity crop farming, but still, meat production is highly inefficient. Besides we know that average red meat consumption is higher than what’s considered to be healthy. Changing to a more healthy diet would reduce the investments required to limit global warming enormously and has many co-benefits, like for health and slowing down the criminal rate of species extinction. You don’t have to completely resign from eating meat, just far less (here’s a good resource: I bet the occasional steak you do eat from time to time will taste a great deal better.

  • schmid91

    What about this approach:

    What I can mention too is the article about it from UK wired magazine in september 09 about
    fake meat:
    Just thought about to do researches on AB tests for real and for labortary produced meat and may this will be a solution to long for meat…

  • kyrani

    Surely even the most carnivorous among us can do without meat one day a week? It’s not as if there is a shortage of other foods to choose from. But another thing to consider is portion size.

    Back in the day, it was recommended we eat x servings of meat per week. Those serving sizes were 100g-150g. Find me someone, not calorie counting, who eats a 100g portion of meat. At restaurants you’ll routinely find 350g-500g steaks, which wouldn’t stem from populations routinely eating 100g, fist sized portions.

    Reducing the frequency of meat eating by one day per week is one thing, but isn’t the issue the quantity consumed overall? Someone eating 100g of meat x 7 days is still consuming less than someone eating 350g 3 times a week, so maybe we can have our meat and eat it too, remembering that meat is good for us in many ways.

    A longer term view could be to seriously reduce the presence of meat in our diets (difficult to do with meats so ingrained in culture, lifestyle and customs), forcing producers to be more efficient across the whole supply chain, to package, cut and price meat differently and to promote public awareness of the issues around the meat industry and which products have the greatest impact on the environment.

  • Hendo

    I’m actually on this path… I’ve been reducing the amount of meat I eat for years and I’ve gone pretty much red-meat free while living in Timor (because trust me, you don’t wanna eat THIS red meat). At home here I mostly eat vegetarian food. This is my compromise – eating mostly vegetarian food – and eating chicken a few times a week. When I return to Australia (to the land of variety in food! and cookbooks!) I am going to make a concerted effort to be a better vegetarian cook.

    Personally my trip down this path was accelerated after I read some studies on bowel cancer and the connections to red meat… bowel cancer runs in my family and I’m not that keen, I think eating mostly vegetarian food kicks the arse of cancer and worsening environmental problems myself…

    I admit it’s probably been easier for me because for a long time (way back when I was still living with my parents as a teenager) I have been going off eating huge amounts of meat (and we do eat huge amounts of meat in Australia as you point out). And I like vegetables. It’s a bit easier to go vegetarian part time / full time if you don’t have to break through the idea that ‘vegetables are yuck’ or ‘vegetables aren’t a REAL meal’ which I find so many Australian adults have.

  • meatmarket

    many things influenced my decision to cut down over the last two years since finding out more and more about both the environmental impacts of beef cattle in particular, and also the beef production system which is enough to put anyone off eating (see the Food Inc doco for confirmation). but here are some other issues I’d like to throw into the mix to nuance the debate a little:

    1 – in terms of emissions, pigs and sheep are far better than cattle, although still compare worse to veges of course. so if it’s hard to go cold turkey (sorry), start with the big ones first. then you have the question of dairy of course.

    2 – it’s also about water use. we use something like 80% of good water in agriculture and to put it crudely, meat is the United States of water usage: it sucks up far more water per calorie than the planet can cope with (imagine if people in India were to eat meat like people in the west do?) it’s the exponentially huge impact of meat versus other products plus the global equality argument that can encourage one to ween oneself of meat. check the stats here:

    3 – i (and others I know) generally feel better in the stomach region since cutting down and although there are good properties in meat it seems that many of these can be gotten through other means such as legumes. my suspicion (can any enlighten me?) is that talk of meat providing the good stuff might emanate from before the days of massive feedlots with animals on drugged up fodder. the days of tinkerbell gently munching the green outside your cottage window are an anachronism

    4 – food miles – i dont think it’s sufficient, in making the emissions argument, to just say dont eat meat; just like it’s not enough to eat organic without eating local. the best thing is to eat vegetarian, local and organic, as much as possible. so that might also mean the tough decision to give up bananas from the philippines or chocolate from ghana. or is that anti-development?

    5 – finally, i’m interested in what people think about labels in this debate. when people say they are vegetarians, i find other people tend to identify their other environmentally less-sustainable behaviours more easily, probably to make themselves feel better. i think the key is to educate yourself about, learn from and share the experiences of the process of transition from a meaty to a vegetarian diet. simply saying “i dont eat meat, so there” doesn’t seem to encourage others to think about it seriously in my experience.

  • Darek

    Meat is still an expensive delicacy in many parts of the world, but years ago it was a sign of wealth, and prosperity. You would serve meat to important guests, for example. In developed countries, there may be the few of us who will forego meat for environmental health reasons, but the simple and easily enforceable thing to do is place taxes on the inputs to produce meat (water, ecosystem services, etc.) – or in other words get rid of the subsidies – so that the externalities will be reflected in price. I would like to hear some reasons why this hasn’t happened yet.

  • I’m not about to give up meat for the sake of the climate but I do agree that there needs to be a clean-up.

    We also need to take into account that the vegetarian food industry also has some serious work to do because many processed vegetarian foodstuffs create as much pollution in terms of energy use and packaging etc as many processed meat products.

    Not only that but, when last I looked, there was not a single banana plantation in England. Almonds aren’t grown here either, nor are oranges. So if I became a vegetarian I’d end up eating foods that have high food-miles for the sake of a varied diet.

    However, something that has been grossly overlooked by almost all web users, meat eaters and veggies alike, is that the data-centre industry will have a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry within 5 years.

    So maybe we should examine our own unregulated and potentially excessive use of web servers as well as ranting about the carbon footprint of food?

  • globalciti

    With every issue we examine–whether it’s reducing our flying or our meat–it’s clear to me that the real problem is our overindulgence and righteousness with the precious gifts from the earth. We have to reflect on every aspect of our lives and say how I can live in a way that benefits all life on earth? And stop defending our old habits.

  • johdub

    @Karl “many processed vegetarian foodstuffs create as much pollution in terms of energy use and packaging etc as many processed meat products.”

    (Since this is a debate and all)… I’d like to know if you have any evidence / studies to back up this claim? But, interesting point you make about the footprint of the data-centre industry — certainly something that most of us wouldn’t think about.

    How about the idea that some meats are “greener” than others?
    Eg. shouldn’t we in Australia be eating & exporting more kangaroo, camel and crocodile rather than beef, lamb, pork & chicken given the population, relationship with the land, and use of resources to raise these animals?
    Here’s a study on whether kangaroo meat is a more sustainable choice…

  • Definitely agree with some of the comments that suggest this issue is not just about meat. It certainly is about food overall but the reason meat is often the topic of debate is that its impact is so much greater. Meat is to food what flying is to transport – we have to make the big polluting issues the center of debate and move beyond recycling cups and paper bags.

    The reason we can’t just dismiss the idea of not eating meat (however we may justify it as part of our culture or lifestyle) is that if the world population keeps eating meat like it does, it’s simply not sustainable for our forests, water and biodiversity. Far from ranting, at least in this debate, we are asking ourselves basic ethical questions about our role in the world: what if everybody eats the amount of meat I do? How many planets would be needed to sustain my eating habits?

    I’d definitely like to see more information on the pollution from web usage and other less known issues if you have any Karl. But I disagree with your comment that you could not get a varied diet within a certain latitude or locally; people have been doing that for thousands of years quite comfortably. In any case, no one is suggesting not important any food, but rather we must make better choices and operate with moderation and respect for the planet and future generations.

  • BrendanBarrett

    It is interesting to see that Lord Nicholas Stern is encouraging people to give up meat. See this link –

    He says “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It put enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”

  • I certainly believe that one can actually gain a lot in trying once a week a vegetarian dish. Meat products are in average way too cheap to deliver a constant good quality. The average swiss has 9 times eats 9 times. Even being average would be not that healthy than a little more fruits, vegetables, etc.
    Whole cultures can live with it…

  • I have reduced my meat intake by about 2/3.
    Yes because of climate change.