We need to eat less meat - and the G8 should say so

Instead of feeding starving humans, we funnel huge amounts of crops through the animals we use for food. G8 leaders must call for change at next week's summit.

In Davos this April, David Cameron outlined his priorities for the UK's presidency of the G8 this year. He talked about advancing trade, ensuring tax compliance and promoting greater transparency, all with the goal of creating "lasting global prosperity". It's a noble goal – lifting people out of poverty and making corporations accountable for their actions. It's reassuring to see these issues receive international attention.

But there is one obvious issue that is not being talked about, which should be at the top of the G8 agenda: animal agriculture and its contribution to world hunger, environmental degradation and skyrocketing healthcare costs, all of which affect the global economy.

There is more than enough food being grown around the world to feed the entire human population. So why are more than a billion people going hungry? Because instead of feeding starving humans, we funnel huge amounts of crops through the animals we use for food. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat. And an astounding 97 per cent of the world's soya crop goes to farmed animals rather than to hungry people.

We could eliminate the worst cases of world hunger with about 40 million tonnes of food. And it would be easy enough to find: nearly 20 times that amount of grain, 760 million tonnes, is fed to animals on factory farms every single year. Compare this to biofuels, which account for only 100 million tonnes. Tens of thousands of people marched in London on Saturday in support of Enough Food IF, a laudable campaign which highlights biofuels as one of the "bad guys" in the fight to end global hunger – and yet, inexplicably, it doesn't have animal agriculture as one of its key themes.

By cutting our meat consumption and slowing the rate at which animals are bred, we could redirect the crops that they would have consumed to the people who need them most. That's why the prestigious Worldwatch Institute maintains that "[m]eat consumption is an inefficient use of grain – the grain is used more efficiently when consumed directly by humans. Continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat-eaters and the world's poor". Therefore, raising animals for meat creates a disturbing social-justice issue.

And as meat-based diets spread to developing countries, subsistence farmers are being driven off their land. Efficient, plant-based agricultural models are being replaced by intensive animal agriculture, which also pollutes the air and water and leads to desertification that renders the once-fertile land barren.

The United Nations reports that the meat industry is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global". And it's easy to see why. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are the principal agents of climate change – and raising animals for food is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide and the largest source of both methane and nitrous-oxide emissions. When you add up all the energy-intensive stages of raising animals for food, slaughtering them and processing and storing their flesh, it's clear why producing 1 calorie of animal protein requires more than 11 times as much fossil fuel as producing 1 calorie of plant protein. In addition, Greenpeace estimates that in a single crop season, more than 2.9 million acres of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil are destroyed to make more room to grow crops to feed farmed animals.

The water footprint of the livestock sector is also huge. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, while growing 1 pound of wheat requires only 25 gallons. You save more water by not eating a pound of meat than you do by not showering for six months!

Not surprisingly, the United Nations Environment Programme concluded  that "[a] substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products".

Environmental issues, in turn, have a serious impact on our economy. Heat waves, droughts, rising sea levels and other problems caused by climate change can ruin crops and result in increased food prices. Major storms, a developing trend that scientists have also linked to environmental destruction, often do billions of pounds in damage. Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the government-commissioned review on climate change, which has been the reference work for politicians and journalists throughout the last 10 years, warns that if we do not reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, it will take less than 40 years for climate change to cause up to a 20 per cent drop in the world's gross domestic product. He fears that it could be "market failure on the greatest scale the world has seen".

Then there are the skyrocketing healthcare costs that are attributable in large part to the increase in human consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products. Loaded with artery-clogging cholesterol and saturated fat, these products have been linked to cancer, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and obesity. These top killers burden the National Health Service and necessitate that billions of pounds be spent searching for cures and medications to relieve disease symptoms. They also claim a huge number of lives.

Aside from their environmental and health impacts, the meat, dairy and egg industries cause immense suffering to more than a billion animals every year in the UK alone, most of whom spend their entire lives crammed inside dark, filthy sheds. They don't get to breathe fresh air until they are on their way to the abattoir, where many have their throats slit while they are still conscious.

"Lasting global prosperity" can be attained only through sustainable growth – otherwise, we will simply compound current environmental and economic problems. World leaders at the G8 Summit must take into account the devastating impact of animal agriculture in order to encourage global food changes that will be the catalyst for such growth.

The UN reports that the meat industry is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems". Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.