Give up meat, save the planet. It really could be that simple, as new research warns that without radical changes to our diets, the food industry alone is likely to cause an 80 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, exceeding the current emissions targets for the entirety of the global economy.
This creates something of a dilemma for steak loving environmentalists, like myself, who have so far managed to skirt around the issue of meat, instead preferring to focus our righteous efforts on recycling yoghurt pots or investing in energy efficient light bulbs.
Burgers, chops and pies are regular winners of the daily contest to satiate my carnivorous cravings. But, every tenderly roasted, lovingly stewed and patiently encrusted bit of flesh, that once made salivary glands froth and bellies expand, are now unambiguous contributors to the climate change problem.
Of course, we’ve known for a long time that eating piles of meat is bad for the environment. So far, around 35 per cent of Earth’s ice-free land has been cleared for food production causing deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution, while the egregious levels of methane produced at every end of a cow contribute directly to the greenhouse effect.
What’s new is the scale of our collective appetite. At the rate we’re munching through burgers, the amount of land used in the race to provide us with enough medium-rare-rump will have ballooned by 42 per cent by 2050 causing massive further deforestation, pollution, and loss of species. The message is clear: if we don’t alter the way we eat and farm, the food industry will cause a climate disaster all by itself, making meat eating a relatively selfish hobby.
The question is, can we – the assembled patty-lusting, climate-caring humans of earth - do it? Can we quit meat for the sake of the planet? Can we turn our backs on the cheap beef and the plump cuts? Can we avoid the glossy explosion of new burger bars and steak houses that have hit Britain’s streets? Can we stop drooling over the barbeque and instead forge an environmentally responsible life of ascetic vegetarianism and endless beans?
In fact, going cold turkey might not be completely necessary. The authors of the paper, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, suggest that if each of us was to cut our seven day grill-fests down to a modest but perfectly achievable two portions of red meat a week, the damage might just be avoided.
1/7 Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Flood damaged streets in Queens, New York where the historic boardwalk was washed away due to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The report predicts that by the end of the century “hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and displaced due to land loss”
2/7 Food security
Widespread drought devastated a corn crop on a farm near Bruceville, Indiana in 2012. The report forecasts that climate change will reduce median yields by up to 2 per cent per decade for the rest of the century
3/7 The global economy
The Evening Standard headline board showing the words 'Black Friday Shares Crash' in London in October 2008 in London. The report warns a global mean temperature increase of 2.5C above pre-industrial levels may lead to global aggregate economic losses of between 0.2 and 2.0 per cent
4/7 Human health
A child suffering from malnutrition and diarrhoea is seen at the Banadir hospital in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu in 2009. Climate change will lead to increases in ill-health in many regions, with examples including an increased likelihood of under-nutrition.
5/7 Human security
A Muslim migrant holds his son as they are detained at the Immigration Police Office on the Thai-Malaysian border in March 2014. The report states that climate change over the 21st century will have a significant impact on forms of migration that compromise human security
6/7 Freshwater resources
A villager walks through a parched paddy in Tianlin county, China in 2012. The report finds that climate change will “reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions"
7/7 Unique landscapes
Machair, a grassy coastal habitat found only in north-west Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, is one of the several elements of the UK’s “cultural heritage” that is at risk from climate change
But, perhaps that approach sends us in the wrong direction. Year-round we fret about governmental inaction on climate change, bemoan the reluctance of the world’s statesmen to take the threat posed by global warming seriously, and grow tired of the bluster that accompanies every retreat from prioritising sustainable energy. As individuals, we often feel powerless to put a dent in reports of mounting emissions, or alter the direction of our planet’s worrying future: doomed by science and neglected by politics.
Eating meat, however, is down to us. The associated climate change danger can be pinned squarely on our insatiable appetites and our collective demand for more ribs on more plates, and no one can stop chewing on that cow for you. The market marches to the growl of our stomachs, and if we eat less, they’ll farm less. By dropping meat we can make a positive impact on global warming, while if we keep up our habits, the opposite is equally certain. It might be time to put down the steak knife and embrace a meat-free future.