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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How we got here

The story of Britain's finances in six charts. 

Today George Osborne did two things. He gave give his annual ‘Autumn Statement’, in which he’ll detailed how his estimates for growth, debt and the deficit have changed since the Budget in July, and he laid out the Spending Review, which detailed exactly how much government departments will spend over the parliament.

We’ll have coverage of today’s decisions shortly, but first, how did we get here? After five years of austerity, why is the government still cutting so much?

As we all know, in 2008 the party stopped. In the same way that the Paris attacks are a product of 9/11, today’s Spending Review can trace its origins to the fateful crash of the global financial system seven years ago.

So let’s return to 2008 and remember that government debt is any Chancellor’s greatest fear. If your debt gets too high you will become bankrupt: global markets will not lend you the money you need to keep running your government.

For 15 years, from 1993 to 2008, government debt was not a great worry. Gordon Brown was able to spend his decade as Chancellor doling out the fat of the land. Debt never rose high than 41 per cent of GDP, and was only 37 per cent in spring 2008, not much higher than it had been in 1993.

Then the financial crisis happened.


In seven years the government’s debt has doubled, from 41 to 80 per cent. The Tories spent five years very successfully blaming the last Labour government for causing this spike by overspending from 1997-2008, but, as this chart suggests, the greatest cause was the global crisis, not Labour profligacy.

Regardless of who was responsible, the debt is now at a historic high. If we rewind our chart back to 1975 we can see that today’s debt levels are even higher than those Thatcher railed against in the 1980s, when she, like today’s Tories, also cut spending heavily upon entering office.

But while she succeeded in wrestling the debt down, Osborne failed in his first term. In his 2010 budget he promised to reduce the budget deficit by 2015. After five years of austerity, the debt was going to start falling. But that hasn’t happened.

But while Thatcher succeeded in wrestling the debt down, Osborne failed in his first term. In his 2010 budget he promised to reduce the budget deficit by 2015. After five years of austerity, the debt was going to start falling. But that hasn’t happened.

So now the UK must endure another five years of cuts if we are to run the surplus Osborne is targeting and which he recommitted himself to today. If we don’t run a surplus our debt levels will continue to slowly creep up towards 100 per cent of our GDP.

According to Eurostat, who measure things slightly different to the Office of National Statistics, our debt is close to 90 per cent and is among the highest in Europe. 

We are still just below the level of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), those countries whose debts ballooned after the financial crisis and who have gone through a succession of governments as austerity has been imposed by international markets.

But most of those countries have now started to cut spending severely, as for instance in Greece, whereas the UK is still running a relatively high budget deficit (nearly 6 per cent of GDP according to Eurostat). If we continue to do so we will keep adding to our debt, and could approach the level at which markets will no longer lend to us.

That, at least, is the Tories’ line of argument. So we are set for another five years of cuts. And everything is also dependent on growth. The figures I’ve quoted for debt and the deficit are all expressed as a percentage of GDP. A country’s total levels of debt don’t matter; what matters is how great they are compared to the size of your economy.

The cuts Osborne announced today will only succeed in cutting the deficit if growth is as high as he hopes it will be (as Paul Johnson of the IFS pointed out on the Today programme this morning).

How likely is that? Well, the estimates he gave in 2010 seemed over-optimistic in 2012, when the economy was flat-lining and Osborne was at his political nadir, but eventually seemed just in 2014, when the economy recovered.

Osborne’s political future will thrive or dive depending on growth over the next five years. Many economists have argued, including Robert Skidelsky and Simon Wren-Lewis in these pages, that Osborne’s focus on austerity in 2010 caused growth to stall in 2012. If he continues to cut, growth could stall yet again in 2017 or 2018.

The cuts over the next five years are going to be more severe than those from 2010-2015, and are greater than those any other major economy is planning. If they cripple growth, Osborne’s plan will need readjusting once again if both he and the UK are to survive. 

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.