In the face of global warming and environmental degradation “challenges” we face, food is a significant part of the problem and, yes, generally we consume too much meat.  But, might I suggest that the challenge goes wider than a simple change in diet?

There is no doubt that we have a broken food system. Some of the key issues include: 

•Population rise by 2050 Global up 2 billion, UK up 10+ million

•Ever rising fossil fuel and water intensity of food production.

•Global – 40% all grain fed to animals. A large percentage of antibiotics fed to animals.

•Global – last 100 years – 1 billion acres of farm land abandoned due to degradation/desertification.

•Global – 35% ecosystems lost and remainder degraded

•UK –Last 50 years  Soil Organic Carbon – 50 – 70 % loss in arable land

•UK Farmland – Huge Biodiversity loss 50% birds.  75% loss of insects/pollinators last 27 years.

•UK – 40% Food wasted

•Nutrients – Trace Elements decline in most foods. 

•Health UK Food related diseases – Obesity, Type 2 diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease all increasing.

•Over consumption - UK – 62% obese/overweight –  average 2500 cals/day/person

•UK only 61 % self sufficient in food production – and declining

•Cheap Food, Commodity, Agribusiness/Supermarkets, Social equity - Farm incomes

•Myth of Efficiency & Productivity.   Defra – “Sustainable Intensification”

•Government Policy – or lack of it   (Problem? “Import” – global market will supply)

Furthermore  the IPCC/COP24 and the associated Special Report 15  identified that for the last 20 years the true magnitude of climate change had been under reported.  The generally accepted 2°C increase in global temperatures is now recognised as too high; we must now aim for the lower 1.5°C target if we are to be in with a chance of avoiding catastrophic Global Warming. 

To deliver on this aspiration requires in essence that we must halve our fossil fuel consumption is by 2030 and be at zero by 2050.  Furthermore we need to reinstate our ecosystems and also draw down 30% of the carbon from the atmosphere. And continue to feed the population.  A tall order?

So the question becomes which of the food production systems offers the lowest intensity of fossil fuel use, reinstates ecosystems, rebuilds soil fertility, and also sequestrates carbon, and still produces healthy nutritious food?

Is changing to a vegan diet the solution?  

Intensive arable production has required the continued increasing consumption of fossil fuels for fertilizer production, pesticides, machinery, transportation processing, refrigeration, packaging, retail and someone. At the global level the massive deforestation and loss of grasslands has been required for the production Palm oil, soya/pulses, and grain.  Around 40% of this is then used as feed for intensive livestock production– largely chickens and pigs – white meat!  Clearly grainfed  meat production has to be nonsense. 

So what about cattle and sheep?  

The clearance of Amazonian rainforest is in part for cattle grazing.  

In the UK around 60% of agricultural land is grassland.  hill sides, uplands that are unsuitable for arable production. Utilising these areas for food production by well managed grazing makes good sense. 

Agriculture has a huge role to play in reinstating soils and ecosystems. Agroecology, regenerative farming in essence focus on the importance building the soil ecosystem along with its fertility.  It is about feeding the soil rather than feeding the plant with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.  Through photosynthesis carbon is sequestrated from the atmosphere to the soils to rebuild organic matter. Higher soil organic matters increases  the ability to hold water and therefore mitigate flooding and drought.  The re-establishment of mixed farming practices that include livestock are an important aspect of regenerative farming, So rather than being part of the problem, livestock are actually part of the solution.

Pasture for Life Global Warming Solution Paper

So what can I do as a concerned citizen and responsible consumer to address the above issues?

When purchasing or specifying for the procurement of food buy:

•Fresh – reduces the requirement for refrigeration, transportation, processing, preservatives and packaging.

•Local – reduces transport, increases accountability for landscape and pollution impacts, increases the opportunity for closing the carbon cycle.

•Seasonal – fossil fuel reduction for out of season forced growing.

•“Organic” - non-use of synthetic Fertilisers and Pesticides– reduction in fossil fuel intensive fertilizer production (particularly nitrates), pesticides, reduced antibiotics

•Beef, lamb, dairy, meat etc–grain free and pasture fed.

The benefits to our personal health, NHS budget, flood defence costs, food resilience, balance of payments all go without saying!

Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the individual contributing member, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated


About the Author

Dave is am independent Sustainability and Environmental management advisor.