Spectre at the Feast

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 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shies away from the big issues and fails properly to represent the science. As a result, it gives us few clues about how we might survive the century. Has it been nobbled? Was the fear of taking on the farming industry – alongside the oil and coal companies whose paid shills have attacked it so fiercely – too much to bear? At the moment, I have no idea. But what the panel has produced is pathetic.

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 last year, but not mentioned by the IPCC, sought to count this cost. Please read these figures carefully. They could change your life.

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 of people in the UK is 5.4 tonnes. In other words, if we counted the “carbon opportunity costs” of our diet, our total footprint would almost triple.

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 estimates that a kilogramme of beef protein reared on a British hill farm whose soils are rich in carbon has a carbon opportunity cost of 643kg, while a kilo of lamb protein costs 749kg.

Research published in April by the Harvard academics Helen Harwatt and Matthew Hayek, also missed by the IPCC, shows that, alongside millions of hectares of pasture land, an astonishing 55% of cropping land (in other words, land that is ploughed and seeded) in the UK is used to grow feed for livestock, rather than food for humans. If our grazing land was allowed to revert to natural ecosystems, and the land currently used to grow feed for livestock was used to grow grains, beans, fruit, nuts and vegetables for humans, this switch would allow the UK to absorb an astonishing quantity of carbon: equivalent, the paper estimates, to 9 years of our total emissions. And farming in this country could then feed everyone, without the need for imports. A plant-based diet would make the difference between the UK’s current failure to meet its international commitments, and success.

These carbon opportunity costs are accompanied by nature opportunity costs. A famous paper in Science shows that a plant-based diet would release 76% of the land currently used for farming. This land could then be used for the mass restoration of ecosystems and wildlife, pulling the living world back from the brink of ecological collapse and a sixth great extinction.

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 UK government proposes to spend on buying up beef and lamb that will be unsaleable after a no deal Brexit. This reproduces the worst and stupidest policy the European Union ever conjured up: the intervention payments that created its notorious butter mountains and wine lakes. Brexit, for all its likely harms, represents an opportunity to pay landowners and tenants to do something completely different, rather than spending yet more public money on trashing our life support systems.  

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?