Regular readers of this blog will already know this fact. But the more I read, the more I grow convinced that the data I have cited on here has downplayed the problem. Most figures put meat consumption as contributing to about a fifth of global emissions. Try changing that figure to more like a half. Mark Bittman explains:
Five years ago, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization published a report called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which maintained that 18 percent of greenhouse gases were attributable to the raising of animals for food. The number was startling.
A couple of years later, however, it was suggested that the number was too small. Two environmental specialists for the World Bank, Robert Goodland (the bank’s former lead environmental adviser) and Jeff Anhang, claimed, in an article in World Watch, that the number was more like 51 percent. It’s been suggested that that number is extreme, but the men stand by it, as Mr. Goodland wrote to me this week: “All that greenhouse gas isn’t emitted directly by animals. ”But according to the most widely-used rules of counting greenhouse gases, indirect emissions should be counted when they are large and when something can be done to mitigate or reduce them.”
Robert Goodland himself illuminates his own findings:
The key difference between the 18 percent and 51 percent figures is that the latter accounts for how exponential growth in livestock production (now more than 60 billion land animals per year), accompanied by large scale deforestation and forest-burning, have caused a dramatic decline in the earth’s photosynthetic capacity, along with large and accelerating increases in volatilization of soil carbon…
[R]eplacing at least a quarter of today’s livestock products with better alternatives would both reduce emissions and allow forest to regenerate on a vast amount of land, which could then absorb excess atmospheric carbon to reduce it to a safe level. This may be the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change in the next five years as needed.
Elsewhere, Goodland makes similar points and adds:
[A]n astonishing 45% of all land on earth is now used for livestock and feed production. So we propose that, contrary to popular belief, the key to reversing climate change in the next five years — as needed — is actually the food industry.
It’s seldom that such enormous problems have such simple solutions, but this is one that does. We can tackle climate change without inventing new cars or spending billions on mass transit or trillions on new forms of energy, though all of that is not only desirable but essential.
In the meantime, we can begin eating less meat tomorrow.
Reading all this, I don’t think there’s any way I can continue to hold this half-way house position which commits me to trimming meat consumption without eliminating it. I have consoled myself with self-deceiving weasel words about how I’m doing more than most, but there’s just no way anyone can become conscious of the consequences of their actions here and not feel compelled to stop eating chicken and beef and bacon. Through weakness of will, of course, we may slip back into these bad habits. But there’s simply no intellectual defence available here. Every time I buy meat, I send market signals which help to ensure we continue to fuck over future generations. And I’m supposed to justify this how? By insisting that the pleasure of tasting steak is more important than preventing the deaths of millions of people through floods? Please. Again, there’s no real moral dispute here. Everyone who knows the facts must know they should change. It’s just that being moral is hard, and when the consequences are as complex, convoluted and distant as they are with climate change, it’s easy to rationalise away one’s duties.
The lazy get-out is to invoke the necessity of protein, as if it isn’t perfectly possible to get it elsewhere. Yes, it takes effort and vast dietary reform. But learning to love lentils and discovering the delights of alternative foods like quinoa needn’t be difficult, and with care and attention the food can be equally rich in taste, if not richer. In that respect, Ottolenghi’s New Vegetarian blog archives are going to become my new best friend. Having to take the time to plan one’s diet and shop more at Holland and Barrett rather than the butcher’s is a small burden when put aside the stringency of the duty at hand here. And before any vegans jump in – yes, I need to look more into the status of dairy produce, and I need to firm up my understanding of the situation with fish. But, baby steps. In the mean time, no more meat. If you know me personally, you can hold me to that. And please do.