Spectre at the Feast
13th August 2019
The livestock industry is trashing the living world, and free-range, pasture-fed meat is the worst offender.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 9th August 2019
It’s tragic missed opportunity. The new report on land
The problem is that it concentrates on just one of the two ways of counting the carbon costs of farming. The first way – the IPCC’s approach – could be described as farming’s current account. How much greenhouse gas does driving tractors, spreading fertiliser and raising livestock produce every year? According to the panel’s report, the answer is around 23% of the planet-heating gases we currently produce.
But this fails miserably to capture the overall impact of food production. The second accounting method is more important. This could be described as the capital account: how does farming compare to the natural ecosystems that would otherwise have occupied the land? A paper published in *Nature*
It estimates that the total greenhouse gas cost – in terms of lost opportunities for storing carbon – of an average Northern European diet is 9 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year. The official carbon footprint
Why is this figure so high? Because we eat so much meat and dairy. The *Nature* paper estimates the carbon cost of a kilo of soya protein at 17kg. The carbon cost of chicken is six times higher, while milk is 15 times higher, and beef 73 times. One kilogram of beef protein has a carbon opportunity cost of 1250kg. That’s roughly equal to one passenger flying from London to New York and back.
These are global average figures, raised by beef production in places like the Amazon basin. But even in the UK, the costs are astonishing. A paper in the journal *Food Policy*
Research published in April
These carbon opportunity costs are accompanied by nature opportunity costs. A famous paper in *Science*
People tend to make two massive mistakes while trying to minimise the environmental impact of the food they eat. The first is that, in considering the carbon costs, they obsess about food miles and forget about the other impacts. For some foods, especially those that travel by plane, the carbon costs of transport are very high. But for most bulk commodities – grain, beans, meat and dairy – the greenhouse gases produced in transporting them are a small fraction of the overall impact. A kilogramme of soya shipped halfway round the world inflicts much less atmospheric harm than a kilogramme of chicken or pork reared on the farm down the lane.
The second great mistake is to imagine that extensive farming is better for the planet than intensive farming. The current model of intensive farming tends to cause massive environmental damage: pollution, soil erosion and the elimination of wildlife. But extensive farming is worse. By definition, extensive farming requires more land to produce the same amount of food. This is land that could otherwise be devoted to ecosystems and wildlife.
Some people try to argue that extensive farming systems – particularly grazing livestock – “mimic nature”. While some livestock farms are much better than others, there are none in this country that look like natural ecosystems. Nature has no fences. It has large predators (wolves, lynx and other species that have been eliminated here on behalf of livestock farming) and a wide range of wild herbivores. In wet temperate nations such as the UK, natural vegetation in most places is dominated by trees. Even the best livestock farms deliver a depleted parody of nature: supporting a small subset of the species that might otherwise occupy the land.
If we want to prevent both climate and ecological catastrophes, the key task is to minimise the amount of land we use to feed ourselves, while changing the way the remaining land is farmed. Instead, governments almost everywhere pour public money into planetary destruction. Look at the £500 million
The IPCC, like our governments, fails to get to grips with these issues. But when you look at the science as a whole, you soon see that we can’t keep eating like this. Are we prepared to act on what we know, or will we continue to gorge on the lives of our descendants?