Are we eating our planet to destruction?
We all want to do our bit to save the planet – or at least we say we do. But how much are we prepared to change our life habits? Switch to low carbon transport, turn off lights, turn the heating down, insulate our home and recycle things. Yet there is only so much we individuals can do. Beyond these gestures, the extra value in planet saving can seem a bit marginal and may even be counterproductive.
You hear plenty about carbon dioxide emitted from energy production and transport and rightly so. You hear less about emissions from agriculture, the next biggest emitter, making up about 11% of the global total. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), about half of the Earth’s habitable land is used for agriculture. Of all food production, about 80% is taken up with pasture or crops for animal feed.
That means that, in theory at least, if every human stopped consuming animal products, we could either produce five times more food than we do now or we could release nearly 40% of habitable land for other uses, such as restoring forests, while still ensuring everyone has enough to eat.
Seven and a half billion people are unlikely to become vegans, of course, but they don’t need to: take a closer look at animal emissions and see that cows, or, more correctly, steer. But let us call them bovine beings make up most of it. That’s because they need so much more pasture than sheep, pigs or chickens and belch out a lot more methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. They are also a very inefficient source of calories for humans. A bovine being consumes up to 25 times as many calories for every calorie it yields in edible meat or dairy. For comparison, pigs consume up to nine times as many, chickens up to five times and tofu about 1.5 times. In other words, cattle generate 31 times as much carbon dioxide per edible kilogram as tofu and five and a half time as much as a chicken. Just eating less beef would have a noticeable effect on global emissions.
Agriculture is about to become a more important contributor to planet warming than it is now for two reasons. The first is decarbonisation of the energy and transport sectors; even if carbon neutrality remains elusive. The other is that the world’s diet is changing. As incomes rise in poor and middle income countries, people want to eat more meat, beef particularly, and won’t easily be fobbed off with tofu and cassava. Yet, with so much land already given over to inefficient beef and animal feed production, expansion often means clearing virgin forests, including in the Amazon.
Certainly, the increased appetite in developing countries for red meat is offset by rich westerners opting for more vegetables. But the offset is limited by the fact that poor and middle income countries are the most populous, with Africa the world’s main sources of projected population growth.
It will take a while, but technology may yet ride to the rescue with meat substitutes. Until now, these have entailed mainly unappetising soya based products, with some apparently convincing vegetable based beef lookalikes, for example using beetroot juice to simulate blood.
But another, more intriguing possibility is emerging with laboratory grown animal tissue, which can grow a real tender sirloin without producing cattle. Of course, the sirloin still needs to be fed something such as grass or soy. But not having to produce and maintain inedible parts of an animal, such as head, hoofs, lungs and offal, it results in a much more efficient ratio of edible calories to feedstock. Even better, for those who like a steak, but worry about the adverse effects on their own and on the planet’s health of factory farming and animal cruelty, laboratory grown meat is the answer they never dreamt of.
Research is also advancing on laboratory grown fish, which could also be very good news for the oceans, not to mention those who dislike swallowing fish bones. The benefits might even extend to geopolitics if laboratory grown fish make fishery disputes a thing of the past.
Pass the mustard and tartare.
Featured image by Faizan on Pexels.