The ex-veggies eating beef to save the Earth

War on meat? Roughly 92% of people worldwide have meat in their diet. © Jimmy Nelson

Should we eat meat to save the planet? Today, diners are feasting at the world’s first plant-based Burger King. But some argue you do not need to be a vegetarian to fight climate change.

At a restaurant in the German city of Cologne, an eager crowd is buzzing with excitement.

This is fast food, but not as they know it. For one week only, the town is home to the world’s first meat-free Burger King.

Gone are the Whopper burgers and chicken nuggets. Instead, fast food fans are slathering vegan mayonnaise on their plant-based wraps before polishing off the meal with a serving of vegan ice cream.

Today, as the Burger King experiment draws to a close, many believe the restaurant is a sign of bigger things to come. “Over time the amount of beef that we are selling as a proportion of our total sales is reducing,” said Burger King UK CEO Alasdair Murdoch this year.

In the 21st Century, the arguments for going vegetarian seem overwhelming. For years, experts have warned that eating too much red meat is bad for both people and the planet.

Researchers estimate that the greenhouse gas emissions from beef production alone are equivalent to those of the whole of India. “A vegan diet is probably the single best way to reduce your impact on planet Earth,” declares University of Oxford academic Joseph Poore.

And for the half a million Britons who have moved to a plant-based diet in the past year, the good news keeps coming. This week, a new study found that vegetarians were 73% less likely to be hit by severe coronavirus than meat-eaters.

But now, some former vegetarians and farmers are fighting back against what they see as a war on meat. They say the answer is changing how we farm livestock, not what we eat.

British food writer Clare Finney first became a vegetarian at age 12. “I felt like a war hero: a veteran vegetarian bearing the scars of decades of stuffed peppers and nut roasts.”

But eventually, Finney became sceptical of plant-based alternatives. In the Californian summer, a single avocado tree needs up to 46 gallons of water every day – more than would fill a bathtub. Now, after speaking to a group of sustainable farmers, she is a meat eater once more.

Finney believes the answer to the climate conundrum is regenerative agriculture – a farming technique that reverses climate change by promoting biodiversity and returning organic matter to the soil.

When soil is healthy, it has a huge capacity to store carbon. But today, the soil of most Western farmland is not healthy at all.

In Britain, farmland is divided. Half grows crops dependent on inorganic and polluting fertilisers. The other half is filled to the brim with grain-fed livestock animals, producing an excess of the perfect natural fertiliser – manure.

Many believe the solution is mixed farming. “Bringing livestock back into rotation with crops… will reduce carbon emissions twofold, threefold,” says Patrick Holden, the founder of the Sustainable Food Trust. Grazing animals can help restore the land, promoting the growth of healthy grass, healthy soil and ultimately storing carbon.

After all, Holden summarises: “It’s not the cow – it’s how.”

Should we eat meat to save the planet?

Meating of minds

Definitely, say some. In 2013, a report by one UN agency found that carbon sequestration from grazing livestock could offset agricultural emissions by 1.5 gigatons per year. Industrial grain-focused livestock farming is not the only option. It may sound strange, but eating more sustainably produced meat could actually be the solution to the climate crisis.

Eating meat is not the way forward, say others. Regenerative agriculture might be a good idea, but so far it only accounts for a small percentage of meat production. It is also an expensive option – for farmers and consumers. Not everyone can afford it. And nobody knows exactly how much carbon the soil could hold. Instead, we should focus on producing more nutritious meat alternatives.

You Decide

  1. Is it immoral to eat animals?
  2. Should eating unsustainable meat be banned?

Activities

  1. In pairs, draw up a dream menu for your perfect restaurant. Then, rewrite the menu using only plant-based meat alternatives. Which menu do you prefer?
  2. Use the online tool in the expert links to calculate your carbon footprint. Then, in groups, make a list of five things you could all do to reduce your impact on the environment.

Some People Say...

“The more we pour the big machines, the fuel, the fertiliser and the chemicals into farming, the more we knock out the mechanism that made it all work in the first place.”

David R Brower (1912 – 2000), American environmentalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that cows are one of the worst offenders in the farming world for producing greenhouse gases. Cows are an example of “ruminants”. Ruminants’ stomachs contain a bacteria that can break down tough foods such as grass. This causes the cows to produce methane, which has a global warming impact 84 times higher than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. One 2018 study concluded that beef consumption must drop by 90% in the West to avoid dangerous global warming levels.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds the relative benefits to the environment of a meat-free diet. Researchers in Italy were perplexed when they discovered that two vegans in a study had an environmental impact significantly higher than meat-eaters. It turned out the pair were only eating fruit, and enormous quantities of it – all with vast amounts of food miles. However, when data from the rest of the study was taken into account, eating meat was worse for the planet on average.

Word Watch

CEO
The Chief Executive Officer is the highest ranking person in a company. They are responsible for making decisions about the company’s future.
People
Studies link eating too much red meat with a higher risk of heart disease and cancer.
Greenhouse gas
Gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat, contributing to global warming. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour are all greenhouse gases.
Conundrum
A difficult problem. Nobody knows exactly where the word came from, but one theory is that it is a mock Latin word created by Oxford University students.
Grain-fed
Growing grain to feed to cows can lead to soil erosion, and often sees the use of pesticides which leads to water pollution.
Carbon sequestration
The process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

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