The livestock industry is trashing the living world, and free-range, pasture-fed meat is the worst offender.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 9th
It’s tragic missed opportunity. The new report on land by
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shies away from the big
issues and fails properly to represent the science. As a result, it gives us
few clues about how we might survive the century. Has it been nobbled? Was the
fear of taking on the farming industry – alongside the oil and coal companies whose
paid shills have attacked it so fiercely – too much to bear? At the moment, I
have no idea. But what the panel has produced is pathetic.
The problem is that it concentrates on just
one of the two ways of counting the carbon costs of farming. The first way –
the IPCC’s approach – could be described as farming’s current account. How much
greenhouse gas does driving tractors, spreading fertiliser and raising
livestock produce every year? According to the panel’s report, the answer is
around 23% of the planet-heating gases we currently produce.
But this fails miserably to capture the
overall impact of food production. The second accounting method is more
important. This could be described as the capital account: how does farming compare
to the natural ecosystems that would otherwise have occupied the land? A paper
published in Nature last year, but not
mentioned by the IPCC, sought to count this cost. Please read these figures
carefully. They could change your life.
It estimates that the total greenhouse gas
cost – in terms of lost opportunities for storing carbon – of an average
Northern European diet is 9 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year. The official
carbon footprint of people in the UK is 5.4
tonnes. In other words, if we counted the “carbon opportunity costs” of our
diet, our total footprint would almost triple.
Why is this figure so high? Because we eat so
much meat and dairy. The Nature paper estimates the carbon cost of a
kilo of soya protein at 17kg. The carbon cost of chicken is six times higher,
while milk is 15 times higher, and beef 73 times. One kilogram of beef protein
has a carbon opportunity cost of 1250kg. That’s roughly equal to one passenger
flying from London to New York and back.
These are global average figures, raised by beef
production in places like the Amazon basin. But even in the UK, the costs are
astonishing. A paper in
the journal Food Policy estimates that a
kilogramme of beef protein reared on a British hill farm whose soils are rich
in carbon has a carbon opportunity cost of 643kg, while a kilo of lamb protein
published in April by the Harvard academics
Helen Harwatt and Matthew Hayek, also missed by the IPCC, shows that, alongside
millions of hectares of pasture land, an astonishing 55% of cropping land (in
other words, land that is ploughed and seeded) in the UK is used to grow feed
for livestock, rather than food for humans. If our grazing land was allowed to
revert to natural ecosystems, and the land currently used to grow feed for
livestock was used to grow grains, beans, fruit, nuts and vegetables for
humans, this switch would allow the UK to absorb an astonishing quantity of
carbon: equivalent, the paper estimates, to 9 years of our total emissions. And
farming in this country could then feed everyone, without the need for imports.
A plant-based diet would make the difference between the UK’s current failure
to meet its international
commitments, and success.
These carbon opportunity costs are
accompanied by nature opportunity costs. A famous paper
in Science shows that a plant-based
diet would release 76% of the land currently used for farming. This land could
then be used for the mass restoration of ecosystems and wildlife, pulling the
living world back from the brink of ecological collapse and a sixth great
People tend to make two massive mistakes
while trying to minimise the environmental impact of the food they eat. The
first is that, in considering the carbon costs, they obsess about food miles
and forget about the other impacts. For some foods, especially those that
travel by plane, the carbon costs of transport are very high. But for most bulk
commodities – grain, beans, meat and dairy – the greenhouse gases produced in
transporting them are a small fraction of the overall impact. A kilogramme of
soya shipped halfway round the world inflicts much less atmospheric harm than a
kilogramme of chicken or pork reared on the farm down the lane.
The second great mistake is to imagine that
extensive farming is better for the planet than intensive farming. The current
model of intensive farming tends to cause massive environmental damage:
pollution, soil erosion and the elimination of wildlife. But extensive farming
is worse. By definition, extensive farming requires more land to produce the
same amount of food. This is land that could otherwise be devoted to ecosystems
Some people try to argue that extensive
farming systems – particularly grazing livestock – “mimic nature”. While some
livestock farms are much better than others, there are none in this country
that look like natural ecosystems. Nature has no fences. It has large predators
(wolves, lynx and other species that have been eliminated here on behalf of
livestock farming) and a wide range of wild herbivores. In wet temperate
nations such as the UK, natural vegetation in most places is dominated by
trees. Even the best livestock farms deliver a depleted parody of nature:
supporting a small subset of the species that might otherwise occupy the land.
If we want to prevent both climate and
ecological catastrophes, the key task is to minimise the amount of land we use
to feed ourselves, while changing the way the remaining land is farmed.
Instead, governments almost everywhere pour public money into planetary
destruction. Look at the
£500 million the UK government
proposes to spend on buying up beef and lamb that will be unsaleable after a no
deal Brexit. This reproduces the worst and stupidest policy the European Union
ever conjured up: the intervention payments that created its notorious butter
mountains and wine lakes. Brexit, for all its likely harms, represents an
opportunity to pay landowners and tenants to do something completely different,
rather than spending yet more public money on trashing our life support
The IPCC, like our governments, fails to get to grips with these issues. But when you look at the science as a whole, you soon see that we can’t keep eating like this. Are we prepared to act on what we know, or will we continue to gorge on the lives of our descendants?