Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Is it time to remove meat from our diet?

Going low-carbon at the table to save the planet need not be so very painful. The climate change guru Lord Stern of Brentford called yesterday for Times readers to turn vegetarian to slow global warming. But most authorities — including the head of the United Nations climate change programme — agree that we could make a good start merely by dropping meat one day a week. This is what the citizens of the Belgian city of Ghent have been doing, voluntarily, all this year, without noticeable ill effects. The British eat 50 per cent more meat than they did 40 years ago; roast beef and two veg is part of our culture but tinkering with the portion control will not kill off John Bull. And it would certainly make us healthier.

There are other more radical ideas for diehard carnivores. Time to Eat the Dog is the title of a new book by two New Zealand environmentalists (there are several recipes from Korea available, should you choose to follow this path). The eco-pawprint of a large dog is the same as that of a 4.6-litre SUV driving 10,000km, according to the authors, who are both scientists at Victoria University of Wellington. They state that an average dog eats 164kg of meat and 95kg of cereals every year, which means that it takes 0.84 hectares (a football pitch) of arable land and tens of thousands of litres of water to give the dog his Pedigree Chum.

This illustrates how fantastically inefficient — and selfish — meat-eating is, whether by dog or Man. It takes roughly 10kg of vegetable matter or cereals to produce 1kg of beef, which means that the resources for one meat-eater’s dinner might feed five times as many people, or more. If Americans cut their meat consumption by just 5 per cent, the savings in grain and soya would feed, it is said, 25 million people every day.

The maths is plain. The planet cannot afford to go on feeding the carnivores any more. We are running out of the necessary resources more surely than we are running out of crude oil. And that is true even before you take the possible effects of climate change into account. There will be 9.2 billion people on Earth in 40 years’ time — enough to demand the resources of two planets, not one. Food production, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, will have to double to feed them because, as nations develop, their richer citizens demand more meat. Meat consumption in China is twice what it was a decade ago, although at about 50g per head a year it is still much less than in richer nations. In Britain we eat 74kg per person, while Americans consume 123kg each. In India they eat about 5kg per year, in most of Africa even less.

Meat is a rich person’s habit, and it is damagingly indulgent to a degree that would impress Jeremy Clarkson. According to United Nations statistics, livestock farming generates more greenhouse gases than the emissions of the world’s cars, trains, planes and boats put together. Then there is the destruction of rainforest to grow soya to feed beef, and the further impact of the processing, refrigeration, transport and finally the cooking of meat. It adds up to more than half of all the CO2 derived from food production that the world emits — and that is a third of the total carbon emissions.

Not soaking the kidney beans yet? Try this: the extraordinary rise in modern times of a whole range of health problems, from bowel, colon and other cancers to heart disease, is blamed on the rise in the proportion of meat in our diets. These are largely illnesses of the rich world — and although Britons are relatively controlled carnivores, we still eat 50 per cent more protein than doctors recommend.
The only problem with Lord Stern’s proposal, it seems to me, is over methane and nitrous oxide. These greenhouse gases are far more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and the 1.3 billion flatulent cows that we currently keep on the planet produce an awful lot of them. But if we start eating all the vegetables, won’t we begin to — how can this be put delicately? — start to emit more gas ourselves? Hot air and green views do tend to go together.
The solution is compromise eating: a new dietary regime that I am going to call quasitarian. It’s a bit thrifty, a bit retro: a throwback to how our not-so-ancient ancestors ate. It is the way that a lot of people in healthy places of the tropical world prepare their food. In Thai and other South-East Asian cuisines, protein embellishes a dish rather than dominating it: some dried fish or pork is used to add flavour to the rice, rather than being the main event. Meat serves as spice and salt: it makes the carbs and vegetables more pleasurable.

If you believe the old household management books, the British family of 50 years ago would cook a large roast on Sunday. But they wouldn’t eat it all. On Monday and Tuesday there would be slices of the cold joint for supper. On Wednesday Mrs Beeton would make a “ragout” from the remaining scraps. Come Thursday, the bones went into the stock pot for a soup. On Friday our forebears ate fish. To live a little more like this would not, I think, be a sacrifice: indeed, the diet is a lot more interesting than a grilled beefburger or a chicken breast every night.

By planning better and throwing away less, most of us could quite easily cut our meat-buying by 10 per cent without even noticing it. Bear in mind that British households chuck out 30 per cent of the edible food that they purchase, according to the government waste agency, WRAP. The chicken that goes into domestic rubbish bins every year comes to the equivalent of 33 million birds.

Food manufacturing throws away as much or more. This year I watched a British butcher and an Italian one each cut up a 75kg pig: the Briton chucked out some 15kg of the animal as not commercially usable; the Italian only six. He made some great sausages.

Quasitarianism will be so much fun that you’ll soon pity the carnivores. And the vegetarians. It’s hardly difficult, and you will have a green glow of righteousness to light the way. You are still allowed 90g of farmed meat — a decent-sized sausage — a day, according to the calculations in a recent article of the medical journal The Lancet (currently we consume an average 205g).

We’ll allow you to bend the rules a bit if the meat that you buy is organic and local, both of which are major factors in cutting emissions. You may eat wild animals: pheasant and venison will suit at this time of year. Milk and cheese are not too much of a problem, as dairy cows live far longer lives than animals bred for meat and the growing of grass to feed them absorbs carbon.

And what of the dog? When you have eaten it, you can get a goldfish. Their annual carbon fin-print is no more than that of a couple of mobile phones.