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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear