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Nick Herbert: Meat-free Mondays won't save the planet

Posted by Eagle Eye
  • Monday, 16 November 2009 at 02:53 pm

Sir Paul McCartney arrives in Brussels today to recruit support for his ‘meat free Mondays’ campaign. The argument seems so easy: cut down meat consumption, slaughter methane-belching cattle, and the planet will be saved.

But even if a world without roast beef was one in which we all wanted to live (please count me out), we need to think a little harder about what will really work to arrest global warming. Why are Mondays to be free of meat alone? After all, dairy cattle produce greenhouse gases as well as milk. Are we meant to become part-time vegetarians or vegans? And why single out meat? Asia’s paddy fields emit the same amount of methane as their livestock industry. It seems doubtful that a campaign for rice free Tuesdays will be next.

A global deal to combat dangerous climate change in succession to Kyoto is critical. But successful action won’t end with a new international agreement, whenever it is struck.

For a start, we’ll need to maintain the public pressure that is driving governments to agree action. That means guarding against demands for behavioural changes so profound and unrealistic that they risk undermining public support for the steps we can and must take.

The call last month by the Government’s former climate change adviser, Lord Stern, effectively to give up meat eating altogether could almost have been calculated to reduce public support for climate change action. In fact, the people’s response, according to a subsequent opinion poll, was to deliver Stern a loud raspberry. But the reputational damage to a vitally important cause may have been more serious.

There are legitimate questions about how land should be used in future as the world’s population grows and western patterns of consumption spread. But some activists are less interested in serious debate than in pulling their hair shirts onto the rest of us. In their red-green world, capitalism is abhorent and meat is murder. But the planet we want to save is surely a world of prosperous, free people, where wealth can be shared and opportunity is available to all.

Lifestyles and business practices will certainly have to change. But we need to pursue sustainable growth, not to reject the idea of growth itself. To deny wealth to developing nations or dictate their diet is a form of environmental colonialism.

Of course, agriculture, which accounts for 18 per cent of global emissions, must play its part in reducing greenhouse gases. British farming may account for just 7 per cent of emissions, but in developing countries, or those whose economies are heavily dependent on agriculture, the share can be far greater.

But much of our grassland can only be used to rear animals: we couldn’t use our green hills to produce cereals, even if we wanted to. Getting rid of our livestock in favour of trees isn’t the answer, either. It is right to worry about rainforests being destroyed to produce cheap cattle feed, but the way to deal with that is to find better ways to protect the forests and source feed sustainably.

It would be great to have more trees in Britain in the right places. But smothering our farmed uplands with conifers wouldn’t just be aesthetically damaging – it would be incredibly short-sighted.

Within a few decades, rapid global population growth and climate change will collide to produce a food crunch. We will need modern and productive agricultures to provide global food security. We can’t just produce more food regardless of the environmental cost – farming must be sustainable. But we can’t give up on production, either.

In the words of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, we need to meet “the twin challenge of ensuring food security while reducing emissions”. His proposal to boost international research into mitigating cattle emissions is a practical step. Abolishing livestock isn’t.

Sir Paul is right on one point: effective action to prevent global warming will depend on securing individual behavioural change. This can’t only be about policy agreed by politicians. Global targets, fiscal frameworks and the right political leadership are all necessary, but they aren’t sufficient.

A consensus that extends only to the political elite is no consensus at all. Without widespread public buy-in, the societal shift needed to de-carbonise our economies won’t follow. To encourage this democratic engagement we must frame policy in a way that incentivises and rewards people to do the right things.

That means setting out an optimistic vision of the world we’re trying to protect – what David Cameron has called the “good future”, where green technologies create new wealth and employment; where we all enjoy and truly value the fruits of a cleaner, more beautiful environment, and where individuals and communities live within their environmental means.

Right now, a climate deal seems hard. Making the changes that follow will be even harder. We can’t allow political agendas to undermine the chance of success. Ultimately, we’ll only achieve a good future if people want to get there.

Nick Herbert MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs


doug_piranha wrote:
Monday, 16 November 2009 at 05:45 pm (UTC)
and likely to stay a shadow minister. - I hope
Extrapolating every word of a campaign to the extreme and then ridiculing it - is playground debate.

I am fed up with people rubbishing positive ideas -
simply because they are not the complete answer -
and of course cheap to achieve - and requoire no effort.

This campaign is more positive than the politicians current idea - blame the public - better still make the public pay for the wastefulness of major industries.

We could start by making every public servant (ho ho) take public transport.

I don't think anyone suggested that meat free Mondays would save the planet - that is a ridiculous and very very stupid remark by this anonymous bureaucrat - but it might be a step in the right direction.
Production against cost, not just cost.
_joss wrote:
Monday, 16 November 2009 at 09:45 pm (UTC)
Apart from the concept that if something doesn't solve the whole problem then it's pointless, this also conveniently avoids the question of how much you get for the resources you spend.

It may well be true that Asia’s paddy fields emit the same amount of methane as their livestock industry, but there is no mention of how many people each industry feeds. One of the oldest standard arguments for greatly reducing meat in our diets is that arable production is somewhere between four and six times more efficient than meat production in supplying people with food. A vegetarian requires, on average, about half an acre per year to provide them with food. A diet with a high meat content, such as most Western diets, can require 2 or more acres per year. Over a population of millions, or even billions, of people, that is a huge difference.

(An simple reference for this is here: http://cce.cornell.edu/Ag/Documents/PDFs/Land%20Efficient%20Diet.pdf. There are better and more detailed ones out there.)

Added to that, it is a common case that arable land is devoted entirely to providing feed stock for animals that are either factory farmed or on grazing land. (Brazil is a well-known example of this.) This only increases the inefficiency.

It's true that not all land is appropriate for raising cereals. For true food efficiency, if that is the only objective, the land that can support animals could be used to raise meat. In that case, only the amount supported by that land should be raised. This would require a huge reduction in our current rate of meat consumption, which might be begun by schemes such as, say, a "meat free Monday".

The carbon footprint of producing meat is very much higher than cereals. More land is required to feed people if you devote it to meat. More water is required to raise meat, compared with most cereal crops. The amount of farmland in the world cannot come even close to supporting anything like the West's current dietary habits. Much of our meat requirements are satisfied by devoting arable land to meat production in areas of the world where widespread starvation is a critical and growing issue.

These are all serious issues that, ultimately, can only realistically be resolved by a reduction in meat consumption. The idea of the "meat free Monday" serves to make people think about these issues, and to realise that they won't lose out on life by thinking about the effects that their diet has on the world. Suggesting technological silver-bullets is comforting and allows people to carry on without changing their habits or facing up to the consequences of their behaviour, but by far the most effective and practical approach is for us to learn to change our habits and consider the effects of our consumption.
If we do nothing
fourpie wrote:
Monday, 16 November 2009 at 09:50 pm (UTC)
Ghandi said "If we do nothing, nothing will be the result".
Meat free Mondays gets the idea across that changes to lifestyle are required. There is nothing drastic in having one meat free day a week and if it reduces imports of Argentinian beef and Danish & Dutch ham and bacon, all to the good.
Is this how a future Tory Government would plan its environmental policies?
media_myths wrote:
Monday, 16 November 2009 at 11:20 pm (UTC)
As pointed out above, Asia's livestock industry is miniscule whereas it produces rice on a massive scale so any comparison between how much methane each produces is ridiculous. I think the voters in Nick Herbert's constituency should, for the sake of their children, think very carefully about whether they want someone who (if we're generous) is pig-ignorant or (more realistically) a liar whose ability to think is clouded by their own self-interests, to represent them at the next election.
rampantlion26 wrote:
Tuesday, 17 November 2009 at 12:37 pm (UTC)
This is a truly woeful piece, delighting in disinformation and wallowing in ignorance. There is a serious debate to be had, but apparantly not a serious thinker in the shadow cabinet.
where is the animal in this debate?
bunnyhugger_9 wrote:
Tuesday, 17 November 2009 at 03:06 pm (UTC)
'Please count me out', says Herbert flippantly, appalled by the prospect of a world without roast beef. If he were reminded that meat, whatever its effect on the environment, comes from animals who want to live and be happy just as much as he does, but who are slaughtered so he can stuff his face with something he doesn't need, he might address the subject more thoughtfully.
And yes, he should go vegan, not just vegetarian, and all the time, not just on Monday, because animals used in dairy production suffer terribly and are slaughtered before their time.
The only thing wrong with McCartney's appeal is that it is so limited. That's understandable, given the speciesist culture he's appealing to. But the limitation should be noted and rejected.
The environmentalization of the meat question, following the UN report, has brought about an evasion of the animal issue, even by animal supporters, so that the animals have indeed become what Adams called 'absent referents'.
Bring them back! The environment is a worthy cause, but a separate one.
thumbs down for Herbert, and a plea to vegans
madridvegan wrote:
Monday, 23 November 2009 at 10:49 am (UTC)
I heartily agree with all the comments above. As an American who has been living in Europe for over twenty years, I want to make a few observations. In Europe, it seems that every issue becomes political before the practical pros and cons have been discussed, and this is particularly noticeable in the UK. It is imperative to avoid this at all costs. Note how Herbert states, "In their red-green world, capitalism is abhorent and meat is murder." As the daughter of parents who fled communism, I am more anti-marxist and pro-capitalist than Mr. Herbert can dream of, and I am also a raw vegan. Not eating meat is a NO-BRAINER for anyone who examines the facts. This issue is too important to allow it to be distorted this way. So Mr. Herbert, j'accuse. Eating roast beef means you believe in freedom?! There is not enough scorn in the world to heap upon this slight of hand. The second observation goes out to fellow vegans. We must stop placing all the emphasis on animals, regardless of how much they deserve to be protected, and focus on the fact that animal products have been decisively linked to all our major diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Eating animals truly destroys your health. Self-interest is legitimate. Let's tell people what's in it for them, and the rest will follow later.