As I sit here listening to the beautiful spring bird song, as our nation emerges from its wintery lockdown, I can’t help but wonder if the natural world has any idea of what’s coming.
Earth Day is here and the planet’s leaders are convening to tackle the climate crisis. Of course, I applaud any move in the right direction. But, the fact is, we are way, way off meeting our emission targets. If things go as they are, the planet we live on will become hotter and hotter, get worse and worse and we, and all those songful birds, will pay the price.
But do you need me to tell you that? After all, you’ve heard the words “climate emergency” over and over again, frankly so many times they might have lost any real meaning. It’s become a bit inconvenient, hasn’t it? Troubling. Oh dear, what is to be done? Couldn’t we just enjoy a drink in the sun or maybe we slip back into hibernation? No, we need to wake up, we are sleepwalking to oblivion.
These days change does not come without ruffling some feathers so let’s stop, gaze into the face of those inconvenient truths about the world and ask what exactly are we up against.
The UK has been a pioneer in climate legislation and we should give a nod to that. Renewable electricity is doing well – our recent governments have put considerable money and effort into building the infrastructure for it. Okay, good. But ongoing fossil fuel subsidies? HS2 and major road building schemes? Coal mines? Airport expansion? Get a grip ... the word is “emergency”. And emergencies require urgent action, not old thinking.
Aside from these ludicrous stupidities, there are some things that you and I can immediately act upon to make a difference so let us again open our sleepy eyes to a massively destructive elephant in the room. Except it’s not an elephant, it’s a gassy cow.
Intensive animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of the climate crisis. Our reliance on meat and dairy is a key part of that path to planetary oblivion and there is no ambiguity about it. Yet the UK government has scarcely even acknowledged that fact, let alone begun to address it. Just days ago they announced new targets of a 78 per cent carbon reduction by 2035 – that has to mean significantly cutting down on meat and dairy consumption as part of the process. We have to change farming practices. End of.
And there I’ve ruffled feathers because “farming” is sacrosanct, beyond criticism. Eighty-six per cent of the UK’s land surface is farmed or forested. We are one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth with measured catastrophic declines in wildlife, in everything from turtle doves to skylarks to our whole population of flying insects. Amongst the biggest contributors to this assault are the livestock and dairy sectors.
Are the farmers to blame. Er, no, actually. They are having a bloody tough time being screwed by supermarkets and by you and I, the consumers who don’t pay them a proper price to produce food properly. So we need to change that and help them transition to a new more sustainable and climate-friendly form of farming.
Food production reportedly accounts for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and takes up half of the planet’s habitable surface. But according to research, just 55 per cent of the world's crop calories are actually eaten directly by people. Animal agriculture itself is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the world's transportation systems combined and 35-40 per cent of human-induced methane emissions. We must eat less meat.
Many farm animals are reared on giant, overcrowded, cruel factory farms. Staggeringly, more than a billion, yes a billion, chickens are raised for meat in the UK each year and the suffering is so utterly disgusting that I recently launched my own petition calling for a change in practice from our supermarkets. But it's not just chickens. It’s cows and pigs – the numbers of these animals and the appalling conditions they often experience is staggering. It’s all about cutting corners and driving down costs. But at what cost to them, us and the environment?
Well, in spite of an increasing number of people being aware of these facts, we keep eating these products. Why? One clear reason is that supermarkets have the audacity to write the words “The Butcher’s” or “responsibly sourced” on the packaging and we are fooled into believing that it's all rosy for the animals down on the farm. But it's not, and it's not for the farmers either. It's just the supermarket's shareholders who have rosy smiles.
Mass food production has become intensive and it happens out of our sight and therefore our minds. But imagine that we all wake up to its mess of ill effects and want to change our habits, then what are we supposed to eat? What is the renewable energy-version of food? Eating less meat. Because, aside from welfare issues, animal agriculture is terribly inefficient at converting its food into our calories. Chickens are ironically the most efficient in this respect, but even they convert nine calories into one, so that’s like making nine plates of food and throwing eight of them in the bin every time you eat some chicken. Bonkers, isn’t it?
Compared to meat and dairy, plant-based foods have much smaller carbon footprints. Emissions from plant-based foods are 10 to 50 times smaller than those from animal products on average and alternative proteins such as cultivated, lab-grown meat is exciting new technologies that might have similarly huge benefits.
This is an emergency. A real life-threatening, planet-destroying emergency, so we do not need “pat on the back promises” and governments who won’t even acknowledge the gassy cow. We need a major shift towards food alternatives that are delicious, cheap, convenient and efficient enough to sustain us. As I’ve said before, we need to support our farmers to transition through this change in agriculture.
So how do we get millions of people to change how they eat? One: the UK government must commit significant funding and support to the development of plant-based and alternative proteins, just like they have with renewable energies, because whilst it's clear that plants are far more efficient than animals in energy use, we cannot expect those on a budget to buy a vegan burger when a beef burger is far cheaper.
Two: governments and supermarkets must commit to ending factory farming. We must drastically improve the welfare of these animals and reduce their numbers. If you eat meat it should be high welfare, high quality and low impact. It will thus cost more, it will become a luxury – a luxury the world can afford, but you might not be able to eat it every day.
Three: we must educate and tell consumers the truth. The supermarkets must be honest about the reality of how their food is produced. That’s why I think we must have better food labelling, so we the consumers can make informed choices in the aisles. Just as tobacco companies were forced to display a smoker’s diseased lung on cigarette packets, supermarkets should show the actual state of the animals in the farms where they are reared. Now that’s more feather-ruffling!
The food we eat and therefore our everyday purchasing habits are the most direct way we impact negatively or positively on our planet, our one and only home. The science is clear, the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact is to cut meat and dairy from your diet – but even if we all try to do this it won't work unless such progress is directed by our decision-makers in government and our leading food retailers. They need to actually, meaningfully, help us do that. We voted for them to represent our views. If you share mine, then please ask them to change theirs.
I know all this is annoying, inconvenient and maybe even scary, but for your health, for our environment, for the animals we share it with, and for the future of our species – I implore you to make a little trouble to make a big difference. Now. Before it's too late. Thanks.
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