Should we stop eating meat?

Would it solve the world’s food crisis if we all went vegetarian or vegan?

Priyamvada Gopal at the Guardian says no, inequality is a bigger factor in food shortages. I think that food wastage, especially in the rich world, is another huge factor as I wrote here.

We’ve heard fearsome tales of how wasteful it is to produce meat. Prof John Quiggin at the University of Queensland tells us that meat consumption contributes to global poverty. But he concludes, ‘Using current technology and with no additional diversion of food grain, the world could produce enough meat to give everyone an intake comparable to that of the average person in the Netherlands.’

Does it really take huge amounts of land to produce a portion of meat? Where’s the science behind such claims? Simon Fairlie at Global Food Security says that good science is sometimes misreported to serve vested interests whether ideological or financial. He says that meat can be a benign extravagance.

Writing this, I expect comments about how terrible it can be to eat too much meat. I agree: it can be terrible for the land, for human health and for human prosperity. But I look at my country and see how much of our British land is far more suitable for raising livestock than for growing crops. People farm sheep in the uplands, places so wonderful as Fleet Moss. The financial support farmers get to do that is a topic for another blog post but soya fields and hazelnut plantations on Fleet Moss? I don’t think so.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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24 Responses to Should we stop eating meat?

  1. Missus Tribble says:

    You and I have discussed culling and the environment many times before. You probably won’t be surprised to read that, in my opinion, not eating meat would be terrible for the planet. Some species would actually be extinct if we didn’t breed them for their meat!

    • argylesock says:

      True, and this is my OH’s response to vegetarians who ask how she could possibly have raised and sold animals for their meat. There wouldn’t be any pretty little animals skipping about in the fields if people didn’t put them there!

      Thanks to your comment I’ve just realised that we’re a keystone species.

  2. EqFe says:

    If the world suppenly when vegan I imagine that A great many people in India would starve as the milk from sacred cows went to wast. If one assumes that 50% of the grain grown in the developed world goes to feed animals raised to produce meet and a corn to meet production ration as low as 5 to 1 you could claim that was a lot of grain that could go to feed the starving, and you would still have the issue of who was going to buy it and pay to ship it to where it was needed.
    Personally, I would love to see more glass ged beef in US markets, it sure would be healthier, but I must admit, I went a year as a vegetarian, and I’ll never do it again.

    • argylesock says:

      What do you think of Simon Fairlie’s article?

      I agree about grass-fed beef. Over here, I think it’s a bit less of an issue because most beefers do graze outside after weaning. In fact I think most of them are outside even as calves, fed by suckler cows. Hmm… need to seek actual data about the industry.

      • eqfe says:

        I found it interesting but somewhat misleading. When I read “Globally, for every kilo of meat or dairy protein produced, approximately 1.4 kilos of vegetable protein are ingested by livestock.” I wondered whether that was even true, but the truth is, that corn is fed to cattle to increase the fat content of the final product, not the total amount of protein. And for the most part, at least in this county, dairy cows are fed a vegetable diet from grain and hay raised elsewhere, and most of the calories in milk direct from the cow come from fat.
        I don’t think that anyone could argue that cattle or other livestock raised on land unfit for farming is not a benign source of protein. The issue is more where corn is fed to animal or where grasslands set aside for livestock would produce more food if farmed.
        But I don’t in any way mean to minimize the economic issue of feeding this grain to the world’s poor if we stopped eating this meat.
        Have you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma? In it Michael Pollen profiles Polyface Farms a producer of beef, poultry and eggs raised on grassland with a rotation of the cattle and chickens. They also produce pork raised on accorns and some vegetables. But the resulting food is more expense than industrially raise.

        • argylesock says:

          Thanks for these remarks. I’ll add that Fleet Moss isn’t ‘unfit for farming’. My point was that land such as Fleet Moss is more suitable for livestock farming than for arable farming. Not long ago, sheep farmers ran viable businesses in the British uplands. I hope to blog about how that changed to dependency on Govt subsidies, but the uplands certainly aren’t useless.

    • argylesock says:

      PS Some people (not you) assume that beefers and leather cattle are by-products of the dairy industry. But it’s not so. Unwanted dairy calves are slaughtered within hours of birth, and their carcases disposed of; leather comes from cattle bred for that specific purpose. Both the beef industry and the leather industry have to maintain product quality to their own standards.

  3. Purnimodo says:

    Thanks for sharing this post. I also don’t think we should stop eating meat. It’s not meat or milk that causes poverty. Protection laws that heavily subsidize European farmers give them a competitive advantage (which is not necessarily bad) over farmers in developing and emerging markets. These unfair conditions make it almost impossible to compete with the subsidized low prizes on the global market. But this is just a small part of why 80% of the world population lives of less than 10 dollar a day. And half the world of less than a dollar a day.

    What I feel about meat consumption is that we can much better handle our waste management. It’s a real shame that people die of hunger and we just throw it away. Also up-cycling of industry by products/waste products can help change the way we conduct business. The more a company takes care of its stakeholders instead of just focusing on shareholders interest the more we move towards eradicating extreme poverty.

    It’s not the availability (because we have the capacity to produce enough meat for a growing population) but the way we conduct business and how meat is distributed.

  4. Carol Hague says:

    I’ve seen a lot of folk in the past saying things like “But what would happen to all the farm animals if everyone stopped eating meat?”, which seem to me to be based on a false assumption that everybody would stop eating meat instantaneously. Obviously that’s extremely unlikely to happen – if meat eating does ever stop it will most likely be a gradual process. And there’s definitely been change in that regard – when I went veggie in 1981, I was regarded as a weirdo and there was hardly any ready-made veggie food in the shops. Now, nearly every supermarket has a vegetarian food section and vegetarianism is much more accepted and understood.

    I doubt that I’ll see meat-eating die out in my lifetime, but I hope to see an increase in humane treatment of farm animals – if an animal is going to be killed for food, it should at least be treated well beforehand, I feel.

    • argylesock says:

      I’m with you on the need to improve animal welfare standards. As you know, we in Britain have some of the highest standards for farm animal welfare anywhere in the world. To me that’s yet another reason to ‘Buy British’.

      It’s also one of the reasons that I’m proud to be part of the meat industry. I wouldn’t like to see a future in which people split into 2 camps: the meat-eaters who don’t care, and the vegetarians who think meat-eating is just plain wrong. As you know, I buy ethical meat eg products with the Freedom Food label.

  5. eideard says:

    We evolved as omnivores. I worry about diminishing portions of that range of intake just to satisfy philosophical ephemera.

  6. skezier says:

    Um…. This is a personal thing for me…. I don’;t eat meat purely for the fact I have known too many animals that I got fond of go that route…. Mary the cow was my last straw actually… when she went that was the end of beef. I had already stopped lamb and chicken for the same reasons.

    There is a good thing (well better) for the dairy boys…. a lot now are raised for meat so have a life…. Some your right do go the way it is as they are born but a lot are now raised as well….

    Should we eat meat… I don’t but its a personal choice and your so right the landscape is crafted by farming and I love the animals that are on the land as well….

    Just wish the end was a lot kinder….. What finished me re meat was that Mary would have had the fear and well lets not go there eh?! x

    • argylesock says:

      Yes it’s a personal choice. I have a personal block on eating goat. When I shared the care of a small goat herd with a neighbour, we used to raise the male kids for meat. One year I asked for a joint of that year’s Billy and I made a lovely casserole of it. But that night, I had a nightmare which convinced me that goat meat isn’t for me.

  7. EqFe says:

    I continue to be amazed at how little of the lamb consumed in the us is produced here. We have quite a bit of grass fed beef grown locally but little or no lamb.

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