There is a lot of public encouragement to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Recycle your rubbish, switch the lights off, take the train to work, buy local produce and take it home in your reusable bag. So far so good. But there is a glaring omission from the familiar eco-friendly public discourse – the number one source of global greenhouse gas emissions, 40% more than the contribution of global transport – animal agriculture. I am not going to go anymore into the statistics here, but it does not take much Googling to find out just how bad animal agriculture is for the environment. It is true that eating less meat and dairy does come up in some discussions about environmentally conscious living but this is generally among those who are already supportive of the environmental agenda. Still, many people who consider themselves environmentalists eat a large amount of meat and dairy, in line with that of the general population. Are they hypocritical, ignorant or misinformed? On the other hand, some forms of animal agriculture make a good effort to minimise their harmful effects and there are other environmental issues associated with food such as pesticide use and distance travelled. But it is clear that reducing consumption of meat and dairy products has massive potential to reduce our impact on the environment – so why is it not the first thing people think of when they consider leading a more environmentally-friendly life?
The issue of reducing meat and dairy consumption is unsurprisingly linked with vegetarianism and veganism in people’s minds – reducing environmental impact is a key motivation behind meat and dairy-free diets alongside animal welfare and animal rights factors. This can put off those who are simply trying to prevent harm to the planet as they may feel as if they will become be associated with a passionate group with morals may not hold themselves and be forced to defend their position to potentially hostile peers whenever publicly choosing a meat-free option. The food we eat is a visible aspect of our choices. There is also a feeling that anyone who avoids meat and dairy and encourages others to do the same is a hippy activist with a vegetarian agenda which can discourage open discussion of this issue.
In reality, many kinds of people avoid meat and dairy partially or completely for all kinds of reasons. To help the idea of reducing meat and dairy consumption for environmental benefit become a topic people feel they can talk about among a wider range of people with widely contrasting opinions and backgrounds the motivations for this change in diet must be untangled. Helping people understand that they can eat less meat and dairy with purely environmental motivations and without taking on a vegetarian stereotype is a good first step. Many groups already do this, but more mainstream discussion is needed. This is not to detract from promoting the compelling animal welfare and animal rights reasons for avoiding animal products, but can give a non-veggie social option to help encourage more people to avoid these foods who are currently closed to these reasons.
“We’ll buy our way out of this mess!”*
Without financial motivation it is difficult to gain large-scale backing for a particular environmentally-friendly lifestyle choice. We can buy low-energy lightbulbs, reusable bags, train tickets and CFC-free fridges. Even recycling has its own economy going on, buying and selling recyclable material and promoting recycled products – there is money to be made. But there is not such a clear financial beneficiary to consumers buying less meat and dairy. Alpro? Cauldron? (The only tofu producer to grace the supermarket shelves, in my experience.) Soya growers? Unlikely, since the vast majority of the unsustainable global soya crop goes to feeding animals for human consumption, so they would be going down with the ranchers.
The environmental impact of animal product consumption is also less well understood by the general public. Cars pollute and give out greenhouse gases, we call all see it right in front of us. But we don’t see what comes from the infamously secretive animal agriculture industry. They don’t want us to know how much they are costing is all in real terms us all because they are cashing in.
Our economies are tied up with the animal agriculture industry. The idea behind eating less meat and dairy to reduce environmental impact is explicitly to decrease the size of the industry – who is going to give large-scale funding to this campaign? As with general climate change campaigns, the beneficiaries are the planet and humans of the future and so in the short-term it is altruistic campaigning which is needed. The organisations and systems for this already exist, but reducing animal agriculture needs to be more incorporated in large-scale mainstream environmental campaigns to provide the public understanding and support to make this happen.
Tradition and wealth
People are reluctant to believe that the animal agriculture industry has changed and the industry is keen to keep it this way. It is in different stages around the world but the trend towards mass-production of animal products is clear. Yet we still seem to believe in the myth (in most cases) that all our meat and dairy came from quaint, old-fashioned farms. Even those which maintain more traditional methods are serious greenhouse gas contributors, it is only the scale which varies. The secrecy of the industry and their aggressive advertising are key here, along with our own nostalgia – we would like to believe that the meat we buy is fine but we are kidding ourselves.
Meat eating is associated with wealth – in the past meat was for the wealthy or on special occasions. Now everyone wants a piece, in line with a general trend towards living outside one’s means. This demand for super-cheap food is a large part of the problem as it drives the change towards mass-produced animal products. Increased public understanding and a general attitude shift regarding meat and dairy consumption are needed.
The new meat
Another reason for the reluctance to include consuming fewer animal products among environmentally-friendly lifestyle choices may be the perception that eating meat is nothing new. Cars, planes and mass-consumption are seen as new inventions which were not around to cause problems in the past and this is why they are causing problems now. People have always eaten meat and dairy, so how could it be to blame for climate change? But modern animal product production and consumption is new – including the methods used in animal agriculture, the amount of meat and dairy each of us eat and the number of humans in the planet consuming these products. This distinction needs to be made clear – current animal agriculture and consumption is a modern danger and needs to be tackled along with the other key players in climate change. Perhaps, as the top greenhouse gas contributor, even more so.
Too much change?
It may be that eating less meat and dairy seems too daunting a task for some. In contrast to taking the train, using a low-energy lightbulb, buying local, reusing bags and recycling, making a fundamental change to one’s diet can seem a challenge. There is a general lack of knowledge about meat and dairy-free food – I am often met with confused looks and “what do you eat then?” It is not difficult to see why, when the options available at restaurants, cafes, take-aways, roadside shops and as ready-meals are so reliant on animal products as key ingredients. Take away the meat and dairy and you are left with rice, pasta or potatoes, maybe a sauce and some vegetables if you’re lucky. This is also often true of people’s home-cooked food. When the suggestion is made to eat less meat and dairy it seems impossible. The response to this problem is very clear – more and better meat and dairy-free menu options at restaurants, better availability of suitable ingredients and more discussion of suitable recipes on cookery shows.
This still leaves the hurdle of people’s lack of acceptance of a low-meat and low-dairy diet. Perhaps environmental campaign groups are daunted by the prospect of advocating such a fundamental lifestyle change and prefer to focus their efforts on more realistic objectives. It feels very accusatory to say that something as intimate as the food another person eats is wrong. But the more it is discussed the more acceptable and understood it becomes. Environmentally-friendly actions which were seen as radical in the past are mainstream now. The same can be said in virtually all campaigning areas – the initial resistance of attitude can seem impossible to overcome and not worth of effort but time has shown that humankind has been vastly improved by such efforts. This is what needs to happen now, on a large scale, for animal agriculture.
Talk about it!
More open discussion about the harm done by animal agriculture and how we can make a massive change by altering our diet will go a long way to helping move this lifestyle change into the public sphere. I am only discussing animal agriculture in general terms here – there are eco-friendly animal farming options but these are so comparatively small that they cannot justify continuing to eat meat and dairy on the scale we do. Public opinion is influenced greatly by information given by the government, schools and charities – the more this issue is talked about the more likely this information will be incorporated into public discourse. We need to discuss the idea of eating less meat and dairy to benefit the environment so that it moves out of the “radical” stage and becomes firmly included as an essential aspect of an environmentally-friendly life.
*[The heading of this section is a quote from a poem by Danny Chivers, an environmental activist and poet, entitled “Don’t Buy It” about the contradiction of buying more and more eco-branded products. I saw him performing at a poetry slam in St Andrews – he was brilliant and funny and very effective at getting his message across. http://dannychivers.blogspot.co.uk/ ]