For the module Global Environmental Change, the first coursework piece is to write a 1000 word popular science article i.e. the kind of article that would appear in Nature or New Scientist. Even articles you get on the BBC news website. The idea of the coursework is to take a complex geography issue and present it in a way that non-scientists can understand and enjoy reading. The key is to get the balance between presenting ‘difficult’ information in a way tha’ts understandable and intellectually stimulating, whilst not simplifying too much and patronising the reader.
For my article I chose to address ‘Can veganism curb climate change?’. The theme is very relevant to the module, since it takes one aspect of everyone’s lifestyle and breaks it down in the context of socio-economic relations, environmental impact and climate change. Since the article was objective and neutral, I needed to present a range of arguments and viewpoints, which meant a lot of reading to get as wide an understanding of the issue as possible. Since all popular science articles have an expert ‘voice’ that talks about the issue, I also contacted a department lecturer and a co-author of a scientific paper for a phone interview, to get some direct quotes I could use in my article.
Since I am genuinely curious about the claims of all the ‘pushy vegans’ I know, this was a really interesting exercise for me and I uncovered some facts and viewpoints on both sides that I had never considered before. I mainly stuck to scientific reports and neutral academic papers, and stayed away from environmental/animal cruelty organisations and numerous biased news articles that misrepresented the original study. So if you intend to read up always be cautious of biases. Here are a few of my main points, and I have included a few of my references in case you want to follow up on anything! If you would like the rest feel free to ask me in the comments below.
- Firstly, the meat industry is a very controversial subject due to the high number of players with a vested interested involved – from the livestock farmers, to companies that sell meat, to the people who love to eat it as part of their culture. This means that anything negative barely gets covered in mainstream media, despite having a huge negative environmental impact. Estimates of the contribution to global warming range from 18% (more than the transport industry 14%) to 52% (a World Watch study) – and that’s only looking at the greenhouse gas emissions and not all the other environmental costs (deforestation, biodiversity loss, pollution, water usage etc.). For more figures all you need to do is Google ‘environmental impact of meat’. The fact that the meat industry is so ingrained in our lifestyles and economy also means that environmental organisations like Greenpeace barely touch on it, given the relatively huge impact it has compared to say palm oil plantations. The film Cowspiracy suggested that this was because Greenpeace are funded by agricultural organisations to not speak out about the environmental devastation caused. Whether this is true or not I don’t know but it makes you wonder why so few environmental organisations campaign about it.
- Its more complex for different types of animal products. Dairy is usually less than meat and beef production is around 10 times more damaging than other livestock production, due to a very low energy conversion of what the cattle eat – one study found it takes nearly 17 pounds of edible grain to produce 1 pound of beef – which is such a waste of energy. Hence on average meat-eaters have twice the emission footprint of vegans, and vegetarians are somewhere in between (Scarborough et al., 2014).
- Its more complicated in terms of the players of the livestock industry. There are organisations on all scales, from big corporations shipping products all over the world and raking in lots of money, to the 1 billion poor which rely on animals for the majority of their income.
- With regards to the meat industry becoming more sustainable, only little steps are being made given the scale of the problem- using new technologies, being more efficient with resources etc. As I was trying to find ways in which the meat industry could redeem itself, there was little to suggest that any large scale changes could even be possible, and even the FAO (The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation) said that improvements on all fronts were ambitious. The consensus was that in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions large scale reduction in consumption would be required.
- A person eating the average Western diet eats far too much meat for their health. Arguments for ‘meat being needed for health reasons’ are over-exaggerated, over-used and actually promote a less healthy diet. One study found that if everyone in the world switched to a healthier low-meat diet, carbon dioxide levels would be stabilised by 50% by 2050, compared to no change (Stehfest et al. 2009). Even if this estimate was optimistic, meat-eaters cutting down on their consumption and reducing demand, would be vital to enabling meat production to become more sustainable.
- The vegan/vegetarian diet has given rise to a new industry – including production of tofu and quorn, which can be just as energy intensive as meat due to the greater amount of land required, and transportation costs. Hence a switch to a low-meat diet should include more locally-produced plant-based products like cereals and vegetables, also freeing up land for regrowing vegetation and enabling carbon uptake from the atmosphere. Hence vegans claiming to be reducing their carbon footprint should be careful not to fall into this trap.
- Veganism can be problematic due to the stereotypes of vegans and the way it gets mixed up with ethical issues and animal rights. Instead of all being ‘vegans’, reduced consumption is more important right now. However people should be free to adopt a vegan/vegetarian diet if they choose, because such diets do have the lowest carbon emissions and do take more demand off the livestock industry. The amount of reduction aka. the ‘perfect healthy sustainable diet’ still needs to be researched and figured out. Once there is enough evidence for this and it can be put into government recommendations, like the ‘5 a day’ mantra that we all take as fact.
- Both the people I interviewed agreed that downsizing the livestock industry and creating economically viable alternatives would require reorganisation of BIG economic structures, and a huge cultural shift in Western diets. Of course there are a lot of ingrained attitudes and powerful people involved – so it will be a huge challenge. But where would it start? With the producers, governments or the consumers? If we all cut down on meat would that force change?
- Can veganism curb climate change? In theory yes but reduced consumption would be enough. In practice we have a lot of work to do.
Writing this article has been one of my favourite courseworks so far in my degree, and has really made me question why I eat meat. Whether its a part of my culture, whether its because I am so detached from the production process that I just don’t think about it, whether I think its healthier or whether its more convenient to cook. I still feel like there is a lot more to uncover and weigh up, and arguments for the whole issue are just getting started. Either way the environmental impact of the livestock industry is a highly important issue that every person has opinions about, but not enough people truly know the facts about.
I hope you enjoyed reading and please comment below with any questions or opinions you would like to share.