Unless we drastically reduce meat consumption…

Climate change

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

It is perhaps a salutary coincidence that the COP26 pow-wow on Climate Change that has just concluded in Glasgow has come a few days before the Hindu festival Deepavali. It is no secret that practically all Hindu festivals entail abstention from meat-eating for several days – and perhaps just as well that the Hindu calendar is one full of festivals all the year round.

As it is, comparatively a larger proportion of Hindus are vegetarians (and its variations such as the new-fangled vegan, etc.) than those belonging to other faiths. However, amongst the latter too there has been growing awareness about the need for less meat in our diet, and more and more of them are adopting some version — not to say variant! – of vegetarianism. And this is since not only the Rio Conference in 1992 about making the environment sustainable, but also in the wake of medical research which continues to adduce valid evidence about the deleterious impact on human health (the non-communicable diseases) that results from a predominantly meat-based diet, that has led to greater health consciousness. Which is a good thing, isn’t it?

One may ask: can we afford to eat less meat, perhaps even to eliminate it from our diet altogether? The answer is yes – because from an evolutionary standpoint, we will not evolve any more biologically. The fundamental issue is the size of our brain, proportionately the largest among vertebrates. According to the evolutionists, meat as an energy-rich protein source played an essential part in our evolution. Our modern brains require a lot of energy, and it is held that meat played a role in boosting our energy intake, helping our brains evolve to be bigger and more complex.

But now that they have, and are not going to go further biologically, we surely can afford to reduce our consumption of meat – both from an evolutionary and an environmental point of view. Besides, there are many farsighted sages such as Sri Aurobindo who have argued convincingly, and shown by their own way of living too, that the only future evolution of man desirable and possible is spiritual.

An online source helps us to better understand the multiple aspects of meat consumption that are cause for worry. There are arguments for and against eating meat, but there is no denying that overall, it is bad for our health and our environment. In modern times, it can be found in abundance around the world. For example, in 2019 alone, an estimated 325 million metric tons of meat was produced.

No doubt diets based on animal products are popular, but there is a rising number of those who choose not to eat meat, fish, dairy and eggs. Thus, in the UK alone, data from 2018 showed that there were 600,000 vegans in the country, up from around 150,000 in 2006.

There are several concerns that go against meat consumption: health risks; animal welfare; sustainability – animal livestock uses a disproportionately large amount of land, about 77% of agricultural land. Besides, livestock production methods are considered one of the main drivers of environmental damage, including climate change and biodiversity loss, issues which are now increasingly urgent. There is also deforestation of vast swathes of land in the Amazon Forest which are being cleared of habitat for cattle farming and the production of soybean for animal feed. ‘Often, deforested areas are cleared using fire. This burning releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere while also removing a CO2 sink.’

There is also biodiversity loss, many habitats being destroyed or impacted, with species facing extinction or coming under threat due to the destruction of natural environments. Further, meat consumption is responsible for releasing greenhouse gases such as methane, CO2, and nitrous oxide. These gases contribute global warming which is in turn responsible for climate change.

On the other hand, it takes a lot of water to produce meat, and beef is the most water-intensive food. It requires two times more water to produce beef than pork and four times more than alternative protein sources such as lentils. The issue is further compounded because soybean farming (for animal feed) is relatively inefficient when it comes to water usage. Livestock production also contributes to water pollution around the world because manure contaminates watercourses.

As raising animals often requires a lot of grazing land, the intensive nature of this grazing can lead to bare soil, which is then often lost due to wind or rain. As a result, fertile lands become barren, waterways become clogged, and there is an increased risk of flooding. Soil is also a large reservoir for carbon, absorbing it as plants and trees die. As soil is lost, it releases that carbon as CO2 into the atmosphere. Animal agriculture, deforestation, and other land-use changes that reduce soil have been the second-largest contributors to CO2 emissions globally.

Ultimately, all the above factors lead to climate change. It is no surprise therefore that several reports and studies, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on climate change and land, recommend reducing meat consumption.

The inescapable conclusion is that eating meat is bad for the environment at the scale and intensity we collectively are consuming it. By damaging ecosystems and releasing greenhouse gases, the global meat industry is contributing to climate change. What’s more, with the world’s population predicted to continue growing, we will need to feed more and more people. The impact of meat on the environment is not currently sustainable.

By reducing the amount of meat, we eat and striving for a more sustainable diet – and there plenty of nutritious and very palatable alternatives — we can each help to reduce the damage to the environment. And, while there are pros and cons of eating meat, more people are choosing to cut it out entirely. As new technology and legislation are introduced, we can all make a difference in protecting the planet with our dietary choices.

Just think: an individual decision to cut down on meat eating multiplied several billion times can have the force multiplier effect to save the planet. Isn’t it worth considering seriously?

* Published in print edition on 4 November 2021

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