A fork in the road.
There is one thing that strict vegans and unabashed carnivores can agree on: the environmental cost of meat production is much greater than growing vegetables. Agriculture is responsible for over twenty percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide – with meat, poultry and dairy farming producing three quarters of this total. And beef farming is the worst polluter, producing four times higher emissions per calorie than chicken or pork. It is not just the greenhouse gases produced by livestock that damage the environment: livestock farming requires much more land than other forms of agriculture. Scientific research published in the journal ‘Science’ found that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than seventy-five percent – an area equivalent to the US, China, the EU and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Valuable land that could be used instead for compact cities and renewable energy, for reforestation and rewilding.
Our total population of eight billion people is easily outnumbered by all our farmed animals. According to the Economist, at any one time there are around one billion pigs, one billion sheep, nearly two billion cows and nineteen billion chickens. Combined, humans and farmed livestock now account for ninety-six percent of the entire weight of all living mammals. However, the numbers of animals we eat dwarf the numbers of live animals. Last year alone, we slaughtered almost 1.5 billion pigs; 500 million sheep; 300 million cows; and 50 billion chickens. The combined mass of slaughtered chickens is three times that of all other birds on our planet combined and is on a scale so vast that, according to some geologists, chicken bones will become the major fossil of our age.
One straightforward way to reduce the magnitude of animal farming, and to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector in half, would be for all of us to cut out meat most of the week. Eating a largely vegetable-based diet supplemented occasionally with meat, known as casual vegetarianism or ‘flexitarianism‘, is a personal choice that is emerging as an achievable alternative for more people than going fully vegetarian or vegan.
For many, the distinction between being a meat-eater, and taking an ethical stand by not eating meat or any animal-derived foods, still exists. For example, over ten percent of Britons choose to be either vegetarian or vegan. For others, stances based on ethics have blurred as food choices have also assumed an increasingly important role in the debate over countering climate change. Choosing to reduce their consumption of animal products, a further twenty percent of Britons now claim to be flexitarian.
Whereas cutting the environmental impact of farming is difficult at an industry level, it is not difficult for cutting consumption of animal products at a personal level to have a real impact on the industry. A third of people living in the U.K. have deliberately reduced the amount of meat they eat or removed it from their diet entirely. From animal welfare to health concerns to heightened awareness of the significant environmental benefits of eating less meat, we have reached a fork in the road.