Happy Mondays — saving the planet one day at a time

Emma Blackmore's picture
Insight by 
Emma Blackmore
17 February 2010

What do ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and American actress Gwyneth Paltrow have in common — beyond a place in the celebrity stratosphere?

They both support the idea of ‘meat-free Mondays’ - a notion pioneered in 2009 by citizens of the small Belgian town of Ghent. It’s based on the consensus that current practice on producing meat is bad for the environment and that reducing our consumption is a plus for the planet.

But how does this concept hold up? And can we really be greener by eating less meat? Beyond that, what are the implications vis-à-vis the recession — and the global South?

Food for thought
Exact figures vary regarding the impact of meat production. In a study for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, it’s argued that livestock accounts for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it a bigger contributor than the transport sector. The environmental campaigning organisation Greenpeace estimates that every kilogram (kg) of beef eaten represents about the same GHG emissions as flying 100 kilometres.

The situation already seems alarming. And it looks unlikely to improve any time soon: production of meat is predicted to double between 2006 to 2050, driven by growing demand in low- and middle-income countries as populations’ incomes rise.

Unequal impact
But when it comes to GHG emissions, all meat is not equal. As with fruit and vegetable supply chains, emissions throughout a product’s lifecycle – all the stages involved in the creation of product, from creation, packaging and transport to consumption - vary enormously due to different production models.

Lamb shipped from New Zealand to the UK, for instance, may still produce lower lifecycle emissions than domestically raised beasts if the flocks are grazed on productive (carbon neutral) grasslands rather than using fossil fuel-dependent feeds.

GHG emissions come from a mix of sources, including the animals themselves, land use change to clear forests for grazing or growing their feed, the feed itself, and transport through the system, from moving inputs such as fertilizer, to car journeys of the consumer.

Felling and food
Meat production exacerbates the loss of forests to accommodate the growing meat industry, particularly in tropical zones such as Brazil and South America. Cattle ranching is thought to be the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon, alongside soy production – a major source of animal feed for large-scale meat production.

Unfortunately, the types of gases livestock release directly (methane and nitrous oxide) have more powerful global warming potential (which looks at the ability of the gas to trap solar radiation and the time it lasts in the atmosphere) than carbon dioxide.

It should be noted that some forms of meat production can be highly energy efficient, and it is possible to minimise negative environmental impacts. Taking meat produced in the US and Kenya, we can see that in the US, for each calorie of meat or dairy produced, livestock consumes more than five calories – making this a very costly, energy-inefficient, mode of production. In addition much of this feed production competes directly with food production for human consumption for land and resources, and typically could be consumed by humans directly.

In Kenya, livestock production yields more calories than it uses because livestock are fattened on grass and agricultural by-products that people wouldn’t eat.

Despite these differences, there is consensus that meat production is deterimental for the environment and that a reduction in consumption could bring environmental benefits.

Unequal consumption
Though developing countries may be driving forecast growth in meat production, much of the consumption to date has been driven by exceedingly high levels of consumption in the developed world. Consumption of meat is still unequal.

In Uganda, for instance, 45kg of meat and dairy products were consumed in 2003, while in Europe and the US, the figure was 400kg. Some 100 million people go hungry and could benefit vastly from an introduction of more meat and dairy products into their diets; yet 1 billion people are either overweight or clinically obese and if they eat too much meat are far more prone to suffering from cardio-vascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

Meanwhile, the main victims of climate change, which is in part driven by meat consumption, live in the developing world. For example, while changes in the climate may be positive for agriculture in the developed world, the developing world is likely to see significant reductions in yields, due to lower rainfall and higher temperature

Meat eating in the slump
Meat is arguably cheaper than it should be – many of its environmental (and social costs) are not internalised in the price we pay at the supermarket counter.

But relatively speaking, it still represents an expensive form of protein compared to eggs or beans, for example. In economic terms, meat is a ‘luxury’ good. And that’s even truer when times are tight economically.

Some anecdotal trends suggest that the economic crisis has been reducing consumption in the developed world, particularly in the US. One industry expert argues that people are eating less beef, pork and poultry and that per capita consumption in the US is the lowest it’s been since 1982.

In addition, people have been buying cheaper cuts of meat. This fall in consumption may give sustainable development a temporary reprieve from the negative impacts of animal protein production, but there are equity issues here.

The recession may well bring about a reduction in people’s buying power in the developing world, potentially reducing any increases in much-needed consumption of meat, dairy and eggs.

Meanwhile, for a vast majority in the developed world, the recession and any reductions in consumption may bring much-needed health advantages and be beneficial for the environment and society.

Let’s hope the recession instills deep-seated changes in attitudes towards how much meat consumption is really necessary – and ethical. Maybe, just maybe, the recession has added fuel to the fire that began in Ghent.