Most of us agree that action needs to be taken to address climate change, but when it comes to moving to a meat-free diet to drastically reduce emissions, suddenly we’re not so keen, writes Ruby Hamad.
The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “It is easier to change a man’s religion than his diet.” It is also, apparently, easier to change the entire world’s energy production.
Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, “Mitigation of Climate Change”, citing fossil fuels as the biggest source of emissions, with coal, oil, and natural gas the major culprits.
However, the panel also implicates animal agriculture, noting that“changes in diet and reductions of losses in the food supply chain, have a significant, but uncertain, potential to reduce GHG emissions from food production.”
Seventy per cent of agricultural emissions come directly from livestock – and about 37 per cent of total worldwide methane emissions – and it is clear that moving away from animal products is not just potentially significant but downright necessary.
The IPCC findings come hot on the heels of another study, “The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets”, published in the April edition of Climate Change.
The study’s lead author argues that targeting the fossil fuel industry alone is insufficient because “the agricultural emissions … may be too high. Thus we have to take action in both sectors.”
In 2010 a UN report, “Priority, Products, and Materials” concluded that, “A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”
That report puts agriculture’s global emissions at 14 per cent, and while not giving an exact figure, the researchers warn that “animal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives”. Subsequent research suggests emissions from livestock and their by-products may be much higher (even as high as 51 per cent). Even if we err on the side of conservatism and stick to the lower UN figure, it still indicates that agriculture is responsible for more emissions that all means of transport combined.
No one who cares about the threat of climate change is ignorant of the importance of renewable energy and a reduction in energy use. So why do we still have our collective head in the sand about the need to change our diet?
In an impassioned tirade against Earth Day (April 22), which he dismisses as emblematic of “the culture of progressive green denial”, The Nation’s Wen Stephenson calls for radical action, namely, “physically, non-violently disrupting the fossil-fuel industry and the institutions that support and abet it … Forcing the issue. Finally acting as though we accept what the science is telling us.”
I don’t know what Stephenson’s food habits are but, ironically, in a piece railing against denialism, he does not mention meat consumption once. It is rather extraordinary how we acknowledge the need to address climate change and then carry on with those very activities that are causing the damage in the first place.
While some media outlets do report on the link between animal agriculture and global warming, they also undermine the urgency by featuring stories on, for example, how to include bacon in every meal – including dessert. TV channels flog reality shows glorifying high levels of meat consumption, and fast food outlets compete to see who can stuff the most meat and cheese into a single, fat-laden item.
All as scientists warn of the need to move away from dependency on animals as a food source.
When those of us who are concerned by the devastating effects of animal agriculture raise the issue, somehow the focus shifts from saving the planet to respecting personal choice, as if the choice to eat certain foods is sacrosanct.
We have to compromise our personal preferences every day in the interests of public safety. Smoking prohibitions, speed limits, alcohol restrictions, even initiatives promoting recycling and “green” household products all affect our choices.
But, for some reason, requesting people reduce their consumption of meat is taken as a personal affront to their very being. Humans have been eating animals for so long, and in such large quantities, we think we are entitled to their bodies, regardless of the consequences.
Clearly, our dependence on fossil fuels has to change but it is quite remarkable that we actually consider restructuring our entire energy system as an easier and more viable undertaking than simply altering our food habits.
The Guardian’s food writer Jay Rayner unwittingly demonstrates this in his reaction to a University of Aberdeen study that found a worldwide adoption of a vegan diet would reduce CO2 emissions by a massive 7.8 gigatonnes. But, rather than take this on board, Rayner chooses instead to shrug his shoulders, declare that “the world is not going vegan any time soon” and condemn “self-righteous vegans” for “making airy proclamations about the way forward when [they] have no power whatsoever to make it happen”.
But why don’t we have the power to make it happen?
Even if we don’t all go completely vegan, surely the takeaway is that everyone should eat less meat and more plants, and not just on Meatless Mondays?
It’s easy to point the finger only at fossil fuels because this requires no major personal sacrifice. We can pin all the blame on big corporations, demand policy change, and then feel good about ourselves by declaring on Facebook that we are against dredging the Barrier Reef and we don’t support fracking.
But meat is different. Meat means we have to change. It means we have to sacrifice something we enjoy, something we believe we are entitled to. And most of us simply aren’t willing to compromise that entitlement, so we pretend that the idea of a worldwide shift to a plant-based diet is simply too ridiculous to contemplate. That’s if we even acknowledge the crisis at all.
So we sign petitions and attend demonstrations. Some of us even drive less, take shorter showers, and use eco light bulbs. But nothing it seems, not even the looming threat of environmental catastrophe, could compel a significant number of us to simply change our diet.
Ruby Hamad is a Sydney-based writer and filmmaker. View her full profile here.