Climate change is decisively here,
and even softer sceptics are now beginning to agree about both its inevitability and
extent but do we really need to quit beef to address it? No I want roast beef you clod!
Hah ha ha ha This week saw Goldsmiths College,
part of the University of London, ban the sale of the meat on campus
to help tackle the climate crisis. As a result beef products will no longer
be available on campus when the academic year begins in September.
Alongside that there will be an additional 10p levy
added to bottled water and disposable plastic cups
In order to discourage their use as the institution seeks to phase out single-use plastics
and install more solar panels in a quest to become carbon neutral by 2025. But when it comes to beef
doesn’t this seem a little….excessive?! Well it turns out not really.
Because at worst climate change poses an existential threat to humanity. The planet’s on fucking fire! It’s widely acknowledged that warming
beyond two degrees could create a cascade of feedbacks,
where two leads to three, three to four, four to five and five to six. That isn’t coming immediately
it’s not going to start next year. But what we know for the rest of this century
is likely warming of around two degrees centigrade. In reality that means declining crop yields,
vanishing glaciers – which presently provide clean drinking water
and desertification from Lisbon to Los Angeles. In this scenario the UN predicts as many as
200 million climate refugees, with the rising populations of the global
south, particularly in south Asia and sub-saharan
Africa, incapable of being supported unless they move. This is an actual crisis! Got it? Yeah it’s really that bad. Well does the prohibition of beef really make
a difference? The answer – and this is coming from someone
who has little time for private virtue when what is needed is historic collective
action is decisively yes! At present we are using 1.6 times our planet’s
biocapacity imagine we were in an ecological overdraft
and spending far more than we are putting in. Now while some people might blame overpopulation
for that, an often racialised way of assessing the problem,
that’s deeply unhelpful. Because if every human ate the average south
asian diet we could easily sustain a planet of 10 billion,
but on the other hand if everyone instead ate
the typical north American diet that figure would be closer to 2.5 billion. The reason? The role of animal products. So if everyone were to enjoy the same diet
as the average American does today, consuming approximately 3,700 daily calories,
we would need the resources of an additional five Earths.
Even if you wanted the United States of today
to be a template of global development, from the perspective of bio-capacity
that isn’t remotely possible. And when you integrate reasonable forecasts
about the impact of climate change on agriculture the picture gets even worse. A 2009 report predicted that warming
of three degrees would mean a 50 per cent reduction in wheat yields
in South Asia between 2000 and 2050, along with a 17 per cent reduction
in rice and six per cent in maize. That’s in a region with three of the eight
most populous countries in the world India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
All of which are set to see their respective populations rise further still. That isn’t to say the comparatively wealthier
countries of the Global North will remain unaffected,
however. Within a low warming scenario,
forecasts suggest the US would see corn and soy yields
fall by 30 and 46 per cent respectively. Given the country is currently the world’s
leading exporter of grains, that would spell disaster
not only at home but for the world market. Even if other countries such as Russia and
Canada stepped up to become agricultural powerhouses,
this might only serve to increase the possibility of
resource conflicts with their more militarily powerful neighbours. So how can we possibly feed a world of 9.5
billion 30 years from now? Part of the answer, particularly for the global
south, is cellular agriculture – beef without cows,
lamb without sheep, foie gras without geese. That would necessitate less land, labour and
water, while creating a fraction of the CO2 and methane
emissions. But while that technology is exciting
and a massive part of the solution it isn’t yet here,
which means as many of us as possible need to follow the example set by Goldsmiths. That’s because compared to a plant-based
diet, meat is energy intensive and highly inefficient
in converting solar energy to food. A Bangladeshi family living off rice, beans,
vegetables and fruit can subsist on an acre of land or less.
Meanwhile the average American, who consumes 270 pounds of meat a year,
could require twenty times that. If you examine the inputs necessary to produce
a pound of soy compared to animal protein, the latter uses twelve times as much land,
thirteen times as much fossil fuels and fifteen times as much water
and soy is a famously inefficient non-meat product. And it isn’t just the conversion of solar
energy into kilocalories which is inefficient.
Nearly a third of the useable surface area of the planet is given over to livestock either
directly or indirectly, with animal feed accounting for the majority
of global crop production. One study by Cornell University found that
while 302 million hectares were given over to livestock in the United
States, only 13 million hectares were allocated to
vegetables, rice, fruit, potatoes and beans. What’s more, livestock farming alone contributes
to 14 per cent of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions
and, according to a 2006 report by the UN, generates more CO2 emissions than cars. Meanwhile 69 per cent of the world’s freshwater
withdrawals are committed to agriculture, most of which is in meat production,
with the average cow consuming 11,000 gallons of water a year.
That means the average pound of ground beef requires 440 gallons of water.
And all in a world where millions of people die every year from water-related disease. Most remarkable of all is that after using
all this water, energy, land and labour
not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions created as a by-product we dispense with
as much as half of the animal’s carcass. A heifer weighing a thousand pounds
will, on average, produce 610 pounds of ‘hanging weight’,
with this falling to 430 pounds of retail cuts after
the removal of bone and fat. Once you factor in skin and hooves, two years
of digestive processes, consciousness, respiration and just moving
around, food from a living cow starts to look incredibly
wasteful as a means of transforming solar energy into
beef and milk. Does all that mean you should quit meat right
now and never eat it again
(until that is, until we get cultured Kobe steak?)
Probably – but you aren’t going to do that right
now so let’s start slow. Like those at Goldsmiths why not campaign
for your school, university or workplace to go beef free
after all beef is by far the most ecologically devastating meat.
And while you’re at it why not be more mindful about reducing meat generally?
I’ve gone back to being a vegetarian this year,
with the occasional lapse I must admit, and while that certainly isn’t enough to
save the planet, along with limiting personal flights it’s
a pretty decent start. What’s more eliminating meat from your diet,
starting with beef, reduces unnecessary suffering to your fellow
creatures, who under capitalism are reduced to a lifeless
commodity deprived of any dignity.
One day soon cellular agriculture, Hopefully produced by a local worker owned enterprise, will be providing you with ultra cheap lobster,
caviar and ribeye steak – but until then do yourself,
the planet and the animals a favour reach for the salad.