Imagining a world where we eat less meat

Related tags Meat Greenhouse gas

Cutting back meat consumption is the new darling cause of pop stars. But if necessary environmental and health goals are to be achieved, the whole supply chain needs to be strumming along in tune.

Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono and Moby stepped out together on the ‘green carpet’ in June to launch the UK’s Meat-free Mondays campaign. Over in Belgium, the city of Ghent has declared that public officials and school kids are to take a one-day holiday from meat eating each week.

Producing one kilogram of beef has the unfortunate side effect of producing 15-25kg of greenhouse gas emissions – not least because (depending on their diet) cows are notoriously windy creatures.

If we are serious about meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets, meat production has a big part to play.

But the environmental arguments are only half of it. A draft report from the World Wildlife Fund and proposed dietary guidelines from Sweden have pointed out that we simply don’t need to eat as much meat as we do – and meat at every meal has grave health consequences.

Swedes chew through an average of 180g of meat and cured meat products a day, for instance – when just 140 g per day is sufficient to cover their iron and protein needs. Reduce the excess and you’ll reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, says Sweden’s National Food Administration.

Importantly, none of the above campaigns is calling for a wholesale switch to vegetarianism. But they are all calling a change in mindset. In the last 50 years cheap meat and plenty of it means that, in the eyes of many, a meat-free meal is no meal at all.

Breaking the excessive meat addiction is important for our survival as individuals, and for the planet.

How should the industry be reacting?

The meat and the dairy industries are making serious efforts in their own back yards to lighten their hoofprint. The British meat industry is developing a ‘roadmap’ for the whole meat supply chain that will build on developments in reducing energy and water consumption and waste reduction, for instance.

Retailers, too, have been working hard on farm assurance and animal welfare initiatives.

These plans, as far as they go, are highly laudable.

But the WWF report points out that red meat and dairy are vital to retailers’ revenue streams in the UK. This makes them “reluctant to reduce consumption amongst their customer base”.

So if consumers feel good and green about eating lots of meat, the healthier eating goal falls by the wayside.

Radical it may sound, but if meat cuts were not cut price – if a steak became treat and not every pot had a chicken in it every night of the week – the food system could rear less and farmers still receive fair returns.

If the dual goals of environment and health are to be achieved, stakeholders have got to look beyond their own backyard for the greater good. They must work together, talk together, and come up with a cohesive strategy.

As I write this, I am finding it hard not to start humming ‘Imagine’. We could achieve a healthier planet, populated by healthier people.

Macca, Yoko and pals – I’m with you on this one.

Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'

Reader feedback

Chris Anstey, managing director, Chris Anstey Ltd:

“If you’re going to hum 'Imagine' - then I'm going to hum 'All we are saying, is give peas a chance'. If more pulses are eaten in place of meat, the resulting health and carbon credit would be massive.”

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