What’s the beef about beef?

11 September, 2014

The message about meat, and especially meat reduction, is a tricky one to get right.

We still live in a world where putting meat on the table is seen as an outward expression of affluence and a commendation of how well you are ‘providing for your family’.

And yet from an environmental perspective, our increasing attachment to meat is a problem.

A new report from the Worldwatch Institute shows that global meat production has expanded more than four-fold over the last 50 years – and 25-fold since 1800 – due to growing purchasing power, urbanisation and changing diets

Consumers in industrial countries continue to eat much larger quantities of meat (75.9 kg per person per year) than those in developing nations (33.7 kg), though, frighteningly, that gap is beginning to close.

Nearly 70% of the planet’s agricultural land and freshwater is used for livestock, with additional land and water used to grow grains for livestock feed.

Beef production alone uses about three-fifths of global farmland but yields less than 5% of the world’s protein, and a kilogram of beef requires 15,000 liters of water, versus 3,300 liters for a kilogram of eggs.

Sustainable agricultural practices such as feeding livestock with grasses instead of grains and using natural fertilisers could reduce these impacts, the report suggests, but alternative dietary choices hold the most immediate promise for reducing the environmental footprint of meat production.

It is in this context that the Meat Free Monday’s Climate Pledge Campaign was launched this week.

I’m happy to declare a personal interest here as I once upon a time I found myself sitting across a table from Sir Paul McCartney and his daughters Stella and Mary, as the first director of this lively campaign that makes it easy and delicious for anyone to give up meat one day a week. It was a joy to be a part of it all and the message couldn’t have been more important.

I am not a vegetarian, but I am a thinking woman who is trying to balance ‘what is’ today, with ‘what will be tomorrow’ if we don’t start facing up to some tough choices.

Thus the notion that cutting back on meat consumption – even  for one day a week – seemed like an action that every ‘eater’ could take to ‘do their bit’.

There are compelling environmental arguments in favour of diets that contain less meat: Some 14.5% of global carbon emissions are directly related to meat production, for example, so reducing the amount of meat we produce can have real world impacts.

Likewise in spite of the compelling evidence for reducing our dependence on meat, globally we are seeing 100 football pitches of land every hour cleared for grazing.

There are also important health reasons for replacing meat in our diets with plant based foods.

For those who are interested a report by Friends of the Earth called Healthy Planet Eating pulls together all the human health data as well as the environmental benefits.

There are also inevitably compassionate and animal welfare benefits as well. Cattle crammed into feed lots, chickens crammed into cages, pigs crammed into pens – these are the aspirations of a barbaric society rather than an enlightened one.

Ahead of the UN Climate Summit in New York later this month the Climate Pledge Campaign asks some simple questions: would you be willing to forgo meat one day a week (it doesn’t have to be a Monday!); and would you REALLY be that bothered if your work canteen didn’t have burgers and sausages on the menu one day a week? Especially if it could help ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Skipping meat for one day a week can reduce your annual carbon footprint by as much as not driving your car for a whole month and initiatives like Meat Free Monday make it so easy. MFM has, for instance, produced a fab cookbook with amazing recipes like this Spiced Wholewheat Couscous with Sweet Potato and Pistachios.

We are sometimes asked why the recipes on our site tend towards vegetarian. The answer is simple. Most of us know how to throw a steak or a burger or a chop on the grill. But our understanding of other ways of cooking, especially without meat, is poor. As part of our mandate to help educate and flag up healthy, viable, ecological alternatives we try to show that food can be delicious and meat-free and that the veggie option (still so often seen in restaurants) doesn’t have to mean a wilted salad or a bowl of pasta.

I’ve signed the pledge, I hope you will too. Save the world and eat great food – what’s not to like?!

Pat Thomas, Editor