Eating to save the World
Posted on 18th May 2020 at 19:47
Your knife and fork have power, here's how to use it for good
NOTE: I've included references to many of the points I make throughout this article, in the hope that it may stop people contacting me with "yeh but what about" and then posting me links to their favorite climate change skeptic. When you see a small number in superscript like this ² it refers to a study or source listed at the bottom of this article. Many of them are worth checking out, enjoy.
To save you some time reading through this article, I’ll summarize everything you need to know regarding the environment and our future.
There, now go enjoy what little time you have left, take a big polluting jet and fly out to the ever lit all-consuming city of Las Vegas, book a nice room, find a reliable drug dealer and some people who’ll give you a good time committing unspeakably depraved acts from the pit of your imagination for whatever money you can get hold off at short notice (Tory front bench?), and definitely don’t think about the future of our planet, because just to summarize everything once again in a little more depth.
We’re proper fucked.
This article doesn’t even take into account the current global pandemic we’re all dealing with. Instead I just want to focus on the infintestibly mahoosive environmental issues we’re currently facing, for example the air we breathe is becoming more and more toxic, a UK 2016 report by the Royal college of Physicians and Pediatricians and Child health claimed that 40,000 deaths per year are contributed to by outdoor air pollution. It remains to be seen how a global lock-down might help reduce some of these health impacts (most likely answer, not much)
Then there’s CO₂ the heat trapping greenhouse gas, which has dramatically risen since 1950, with little sign of slowing down. (source NASA Global climate change )
Alongside higher CO₂ emissions, are higher temperatures, the World is getting hotter, a lot hotter, uncomfortably hot. Since pre industrial 1900 global temperatures have increased by 2 degrees, big deal you might think, but it takes a lot of effort to heat the Earth by that much, given how big our oceans are, just an extra degree or two is enough to cause heavy rainfalls and extreme weather.
Nine of the ten hottest ever years on record have occurred since 2005, with 2016 being the hottest year recorded so far, we've only just experienced the hottest spring since records began. A look at the scorched grass in my garden which I've watered twice a day tells me the future high temperatures are not going to be pleasant.
According to Bill McKibben, environmentalist and journalist, May 2012 was the 327th successive month in which the temperature of the planet exceeded the 20th century average. The odds of this happening by simple chance was 3.7 X 10⁹⁹, a sum which is quite noticeably larger than the number of stars in the universe.
Our coastlines are also disappearing as water levels rise 3.3 mmls a year, meanwhile thanks to our big plodding global footprint whole species are being wiped out, and quite likely, we’ll be joining them, if not soon, then at some point not too far away, we may even welcome extinction by that point.
Want to do something about it?
Too bad, your pathetic little attempts to make the World a better place are inevitably just making it worse. You are in effect trying to help the victim of a serious assault by driving around them at high speed performing doughnuts in a Tesla whilst continually shouting warnings to deaf passers-by about the dangers of beatings.
As the victim groans on the floor in a pained state of agony you can faintly hear “we should have listened to James Cameron”.
Our absolute best hope right now is that this guy is right, and that climate change is just a big hoax invented by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive.
This article might contain some shocking news for you, it may challenge some of your long held believes, but it’ll make very little difference to our collective doomed fate.
Every time we try and do the right thing; we’re just making things worse.
Think the plastic bag charge is helping? Wrong.
Alternatives such as paper bags have a bigger carbon footprint and can’t as easily be re-used. In fact a 2018 Danish study on life cycle assessment found that Organic cotton bags would have to be re-used 20,000 times in order to be worth the production effort required to make a plastic bag and use that bag just once (this didn’t take into account biodegradable effect of bags)
A 2016 Australian study even found that as plastic bag sales went down bin bag sales went up increasing total plastic environmental waste.
And the electric car driving self-righteous fools, are neglecting something in their considerations of future green bliss as we wave goodbye to our Diesel and petrol engines.
Charging electrical batteries still for the most part requires fossil fuels, and the rare metals required to make these cars means stripping the Earth of other precious resources, using corrupt government officials to help supply materials though child labour, when I fact checked this point I came across a snopes article who gave this story a rating of mixture, meaning there are both true and false elements to it, yes child labourers as young as four have been found to work in Cobalt mines in what I presume is sarcastically called "The Democratic Republic of Congo" as recently as 2017, but it’s OK, because that cobalt is also used for phone batteries, tablets and laptops.
So long as we’re clear that child exploitation for electric car production isn’t exclusively done just for car batteries, everybody got that?
The heavier battery might also mean that the tyres on electric cars have an increased particle emission. Though this argument could also be made regarding middle class Mums driving land rovers to Waitrose after the School run.
And then of course, there is diet.
Eight hundred words into this article and I still haven’t touched on the main premise of the title, we have a lot to get through. This is a big can of non-fair trade worms.
So how does the food we put in our mouth affect the planet?
There are too many of us… and we eat too much
Our current calorie consumption is growing beyond the ability of our resources to replenish¹. As it stands at the moment, we need another planet about two thirds the size of our own just in order to carry on eating at our current rate, and that’s just a global average, it’s the greedy bastards in high income contries eating most of the calories, for example if absolutely every citizen on Earth ate the same way as the West, we would need three more planets to meet our food needs.
We need only look at the recent supermarket panic buying to get a glimpse of what our futures might look like. Less shops, more empty shelves, less products, more hunger. Our whole system is more fragile than we ever realized.
And it’s getting worse every day, with each new sunset another 218,000 mouths require food. By 2050 our current population of about 7.53 billion people (give or take) could rise to 10 billion². These figures where estimated before Covid 19, however it would be very unlikely that even a worldwide pandemic would prevent overpopulation.
And all that food is taking its toll on the environment, food production accounts for 25% of Global CO2 emissions, it requires energy and land use, strips away rain-forest, acidifies the oceans, takes up 70% of freshwater withdrawals, kills whole species of animals and destroys biodiversity. ³ ⁴ ⁵ ⁶ ⁷
And do you know what’s even worse?
Most of that food goes to waste, a third of all food produced, around 1.3 billion tons is wasted each year, that food rots and gives of carbon emissions, in fact if all food waste was a country, it would be the 3rd biggest producer of emissions after (drumroll) United States and China (shock, gasp, what?) ⁸
In England it’s estimated that each person wastes around .42kg of food every day (on average)⁹. This isn’t a figure for industrial waste or stuff the Supermarket didn’t sell, its people throwing away food that’s gone out of date or scraping the food they didn’t eat into the bin.
To put the above figures into perspective, whilst we throw away about a third of our waste, one person in nine of the global population goes to bed hungry every night, with 3.1 million deaths per year in under-fives due to poor nutrition. ¹⁰
Take a moment to consider what it might mean to dramatically reduce this wastage, imagine going to a supermarket where they only had enough fresh food for the people visiting that day, forget the wide range of choice we’re used to, most of us would go home with half empty shopping bags if we didn’t get there early enough.
Or think about visiting a restaurant where you couldn’t choose from a wide variety of menu items, because they couldn’t just throw away all the foods which aren’t eaten that day.
Every single day across thousands of restaurants, bakers and even petrol stations, there is an abundance of fresh food just waiting on the off chance that you might find yourself peckish and decide to pop in. If they don’t have more food than they need, then they can’t provide a wide ranging menu, so in order to ensure you don’t take your custom elsewhere they have to throw away food every day, and even with giving some of this to homeless shelters, there is still a massive abundance of edibles just rotting in wasteland giving of emissions.
So what about meat?
Here we go, the reason most people probably wanted to read this article in the first place, is being a meat eater worse for the planet than being a vegan or vegetarian.
What does “meat lover” Mckeating have to say on this after spending countless hours committed to research and writing thousands of words on this very topic.
Yes. Meat definitely has a negative impact on the planet.
It is not a straightforward comparison though, as I’ll go into.
The impact of meat
“The livestock sector is responsible for 15% of global man-made emissions. To put that in perspective, that's about the same as all the emissions from all the transport in the world (including planes, trains, cars, vans and ships.)”
“being vegan for a year saves 365 animals, 7436lbs of CO2 (3373kg) 1000 square metres of forest, 3,320kg of CO2 and 6,6670kg of grain”
Widely circulated internet meme promoting Veganuary
The above statements are just some of the falsehoods, alternative facts and plain old bullshit circulating the media.
I’ll start with the first one, 15% of global man made emissions is quite a big deal, and yep, that would be worse than emissions from the transport sector which is 14.5%, but this isn’t really a direct comparison, because animals are being measured here over there whole lifetime production.
These figures include emissions from livestock from birth to death, fertilizer production, growing feed and conversion of land from forest to pastures.
However when transport was measured, they didn’t take into account the impact of vehicle material production and parts, assembling vehicles and maintaining roads, bridges and of course airports. They also only included finished cars, trucks, trains, and plains. So, as a result, we have a very distorted juxtaposition.
The figure for total emissions is actually more like 5% for livestock, 9.5 percentage points lower than transport. This is how the intergovernmental panel on climate change look at these sectors¹².
The Veganuary information seems to be based mostly on numbers picked from thin air, Ria Rehborg the CEO of Veganuary has stated she does not know where these figures come from, and the fact checking site full.fact.org couldn’t seem to find them either. ¹³
In practice trying to get accurate information on this subject is complex, there are all kinds of trade off’s and compromises that need to be made when we consider the environmental impact of our food.
But simply pushing out bullshit is an irresponsible injustice to vegans and vegetarians. Because there is plenty of solid evidence the likes of James Cameron could use his skills to help raise awareness off.
In the UK the average person consumes around 79kg of meat per person¹⁶ , in India where the diet is mostly vegetarian the figure is 4.4kg per person.¹⁷
In the UK we also consume around 93kg of dairy per person per year too.¹⁸
All this meat requires land and resources, which is how we end up with what the Americans call Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or what we in the UK call Mega Farms, which implies a lot more fun than the reality they entail.
The UK has nearly eight hundred of these Mega Farms, most of them are for poultry, some of these farms house over a million birds, huddled in close together just about scraping through minimal welfare standards.
About a quarter of these Mega Farms are used for pigs and a small fraction are used for beef. ¹⁸
Here in lies the big issue with meat production. Whilst it’s economically more viable for businesses to operate in this way, it’s environmentally (and ethically) terrible.
Not so long ago in our history, livestock products where limited, people could only have whatever was available, many people would keep chickens themselves to help save money on eggs.
These days however our supply is demand driven, if somebody wants to come out of a night club at 5am and go eat some fancy pants fried chicken served in that most elegant of dinnerware “the bucket” then there had better be a plentiful supply waiting just in case.
Should such gentleman choose to frequent another fine dining establishment instead such as a pizza shop or burger van, then the Colonel will shake his head, sigh, and throw his uneaten southern fried finger licking good chicken in the bin. Good job it doesn’t cost much.
I love meat, I love the taste, I love the nutritional value and benefit to health when consumed in moderation as part of a good diet.
But I can’t help but be disgusted at the thought of a large warehouse stuffed with chickens most of which after a short not very great life will be fried, coated in breadcrumbs and quite possibly just thrown away.
The great big cow in the room
“4kg of beef is as bad as a flight to New York and back”
George Monbiot, Apocalypse Cow
The above statement originated from Dr. Pat Brown, the founder of Impossible foods, who’s original claim was 4lbs not 4kg, but I’ll do this comparison with KG’s.
Per passenger, a flight from NY to London would cause 898kg of CO2 emissions. In comparison British cattle are responsible for an average of 17 to 27 kg C02 per kg, so 68 to 108kg.¹⁴,¹⁵
That still isn’t an insignificant number for 20 steaks, but it is still less than a 13th to an 8th of the impact of a flight to the big apple
When feed and land use is included, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that cattle are responsible for about 6% of total greenhouse emissions.²º
Let’s take a closer look at the problem with those Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. We need to examine the chemistry a little bit here, this stuff can get complicated, so I’ve made every effort to both simplify things and still represent facts.
There are three main gasses involved in causing climate change, Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide and methane.
Carbon Dioxide CO₂
Carbon Dioxide occurs naturally in the earth’s atmosphere, there are many sources including volcanoes, geysers (not to be confused with geezers) and it comes out of our mouths every time we exhale.
Human activities have seen this gas rise considerably by 43% since the dawn of the industrial age, mostly this has been due to burning coal and other fossil fuels, deforestation and cement production. We also use it to make fizzy drinks, fire extinguishers, wine and as a refrigerant.
To give you some perspective on this, natural sources of CO₂ such as volcanoes emit between 0.02 and 0.03 billion tons per year²², human activities meanwhile emit around 29 billion tons of CO₂ per year.
CO₂ rises up, traps light radiation coming from the Earth’s surface, and prevents it from escaping into the upper atmosphere, thereby keeping our planet toasty. As the temperature goes up, CO₂ levels also increase, in a positive feedback loop which I’ll just nickname “Earth really is proper fucked”.
In what might be yet more cripplingly depressing news, CO₂ is a stock gas, levels only ever go up, they don’t come down. It stays up, for hundreds, possibly even thousands of years, meaning that even if we suddenly stopped all industry and agriculture activity today, the damage that’s already been done will stay with us for some time. But it’s OK, having a new storm every weekend is a normal thing, right?
Livestock’s contribution to global CO₂ emissions is about 14.5% ³³ they contribute this in numerous ways, firstly by eating up all the grass which has been capturing the carbon, and then by producing manure (shit) which is used to fertilize crops. Like humans, they also contribute to CO₂ simply by breathing.
Some evidence shows that by giving animals larger spaces to roam more through managed grazing we can improve carbon sequestration and decrease livestocks contribution. This also increases microbial biodiversity and water absorption, producing much healthier livestock with fewer parasites. ³⁴.
Methane has occurred naturally on Earth for millions of years, most of it under ground, beneath the ocean.
We’ve been using this gas for a while now, every time we turn on the hob to fry an egg we’re burning atmospheric methane. It’s also used to heat homes, producing ammonia and is even mixed with liquid oxygen to make rocket fuel.
In 2010 a measurement of methane was taken in the arctic where they found atmospheric levels of 1850 nmol/mol (nano mole to mole) this is the equivalent of about 2 cups of methane inside a swimming pool.
This doesn’t sound a lot, but trust me, it’s high, like really high. I mean it’s stupidly ridiculously high.
To give you some idea of how high this is, during the ice age, atmospheric levels where between 300 to 400 nmol/mol, just over a fifth of todays values. Of course, you might expect low levels then, because it was super cold.
As time went by and we said goodbye to that lovable woolly mammoth and the squirrel thing which can never quite get the acorn, the interglacial warming period levels gradually began to increase to around 600 to 700 nmol/mol.
Since around 1750 and the start of the Industrial revolution there has been a 148% increase in global levels of methane, in the last three decades alone this has jumped considerably further .²³
So what you might say? What’s the big deal?
Methane traps more heat than CO₂, a lot more. Eighty Four times more.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
There is some good news however, if you could call it that. Methane has a short shelf life, about ten years.
But the bad news is that sources of methane are numerous, of course we know about cattle farts and burps, we’ll cover those in more depth soon (something to look forward to), but methane is also released from melting ice caps (remember the “Earth really is proper fucked” feedback loop I mentioned earlier), it’s also released from landfills (go humans!), waste water treatment facilities and surprisingly enough plants²⁴,which may be responsible for 10 to 30% of global methane emissions. Another surprise, is that rice accounts for 20 to 30% of emissions, acting as a man-made source of wetlands.
So back to cattle then, when cows eat various materials, their four stomachs contain various microbes which allow them to turn those mostly inedible to human foods into a source of protein that they can use to get henched.
The downside to this is that this process produces methane. Trying to get an idea of exactly how much methane cows produce has been a bit of a headache, I’ve spent nearly an hour going through various academic websites and getting different numbers making it nearly impossible to get an accurate idea of the percentage to which cattle are responsible for methane emissions.
Then I came across this table from the Oxford Environmental change institute, it seems that lots of different researchers have all come up with quite different figures when trying to ascertain sector percentage of emissions..
There can be no doubt that cattle are a significant contributor of methane gas, about 90 to 95% of methane produced by cows comes from cow burps, not farts as we have been led to believe. There is some exciting research underway showing that methane production in cows can be dramatically reduced up to 50% by feeding them less fibrous foods such as sea weed, onions and possibly even pro biotics²⁸.
Optimizing cows diets is going to play a crucial role in tackling the agriculture industries contribution to climate change. Remember earlier when I mentioned that India only eats an average of 4kg of meat per person compared to 78kg in the UK. Well India still has a lot more cows than us, they produce milk and dairy produce which form an important part of many diets in India.
In fact India has more cattle than America, Europe and China put toghether, the methane production from these cows accounts for about 70 to 80% of greenhouse gasses associated with live stock.
The huge herds aren’t just in relation to the dense population, it takes twenty Indian cows to produce the same amount of milk as one American cow.
I’m not too familiar with how dairy farming works, and how all this ties in with ethics, Frank Mitloehner is a researcher at the Department of Animal Science at the University of California. He’s led the way into finding ways to cut cattle emissions, and he has suggested that by improving cattle feed, basic vaccination treatment against parasites other simple measures, all cows across the globe could be producing fewer emissions.
Nitrous oxide N₂O
Now we’re onto the fun stuff! Quite literally, N₂O is a laughing gas at room temperature. It’s potential to heat up the atmosphere is three hundred times greater than CO₂ (whoop, whoop!) and better still, it hangs around in the atmosphere for a mahoosive 120 years just picking away at our ozone layer. (note from earlier: we’re proper fucked)
A 2009 study suggested that N₂O is the biggest threat to our ozone layer³².
I should point out here that N₂O can occur naturally, climate sceptics may hold on tight to the fact that micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi all produce N₂O. It’s also produced by the oceans, and by atmospheric chemical reactions. But all this only accounts for 64% of annual emissions, the remaining part is all man made (internet high five).
Human use is numerous; however, the main sources are from agriculture soils, livestock and manure ³¹. Other sources include biomass burning and human sewage.
Another issue with meat is the land that it takes up, twenty-six percent of the planets ice free land is home to cattle, and nearly a third of all cropland is used for livestock food production ³⁶.
I’ll cover cattle feed in the next section as there are a few nuances that we need to consider when thinking about climate cost, for now we’ll focus on the issues with cattle grazing on all that land.
Every year 13 billion hectares of rainforest are cleared for agriculture uses as pastures or cropland. In Brazil around 70% of cleared rainforest is used for cattle, with the remaining clearance used for logging, agriculture (palm oil), soy, hydro-electric power, charcoal and infrastructure (roads to transport all that environmentally damaging produce)³⁸.
Much of the reason for this is in meeting the rising demand for meat as income levels rise across the globe and more people are lifted out of poverty.
Using land in the wrong way can affect water availability, soil fertility and biodiversity, and this is causing huge issues around the globe for local communities.
If we got rid of all the cows however, the problem would not be solved, 60% of the land used by cattle is too rocky, too steep or too arid to support crops. In those areas, cow farming might be the most productive use of that land, especially in poor rural communities³⁹.
Precious Phiri is a training and development specialist in environmental issues, she works for the land healer organization, which aims to regenerate best land practice and improve the lives of impoverished communities. She has worked with cattle in brittle land where crops can’t grow and has seen first-hand how the land can be bought back to fertile use with the help of cows.
Alongside all the land cows take up, additional land is used to grow crops to feed them, however there is a lot of nuances around this we need to understand in order to get a more complete picture.
Eighty six percent of the food that cows eat is inedible to humans. For example, soy oil intake has dramatically increased in the last century⁴°. The soy used to create this oil is pulped and ends up as soybean cakes, which are inedible to humans, but can be eaten by cows⁴¹. Many moons ago I worked as a nutrition consultant in a company making biofuels. My job was to help guys on the nightshift try to stay awake and alert without impacting on their health or blowing up the reactor. As part of my work I was given a tour of the site, they had an impressive brewery consisting of eight large fermentation tanks which converted grain into a 12% proof beer which would then be distilled and converted into fuel.
The left-over grain was then taken back to feed cows making this an economically efficient means of producing energy.
Eliminating cows wouldn’t reduce the production of these foods, instead they would go to waste and decompose where they would still emit greenhouse gasses. And what about the remaining 14% of a cow’s diet which is edible to humans? Isn’t this a wasteful use of land and resources? To some extent it probably is, however for every .6kg of human edible foods that cows eat they are giving us back 1kg of beef.
This makes cows efficient “protein upcyclers”, they convert organic matter which is either inedible to humans or otherwise low in calories and nutrients, and they turn into nutritious high-quality food.⁴²
I should point out that this matter is complicated further by different methods of production across the globe and various ethical decisions around grazing. Whilst 86% of food cows eat is inedible to humans, that still leaves an awful lot of food that’s being grown specifically for cattle. If we’re going to insist on being able to access a quarter pounder any time of day, then it seems reasonable to allow developing countries that same privilege as they prosper, and with increased demand for a whopper or big mac, will come an increased demand for land, feed and with that all the emissions that they bring. Just make sure you have some factor 100 sunscreen to hand for when that time comes.
I’ve often wondered what the big deal is with water wastage, so what if I’ve left the tap running a little a bit or had a longer shower than usual, there’s plenty of water where that came from right? It’s not like we’re going to run out of water any time soon? Right?
Turns out that just like Rob Burgundy, water is kind of a big deal, of all the water across the globe, only 1% of it is drinkable, and it isn’t very evenly distributed, in 2020 one in every nine people don’t have access to drinking water, and agriculture could be about to make things worse⁴⁸,⁴⁹.
In 2015 authors Grafton, Williams and Jiang put together a model to run through various scenarios around the global food and water system in response to projected population increases up to 2050. The good news is that many of the scenarios within the model they used considered best farming practices and improvements in crop yields and water management. The bad news is that, even in these best-case scenarios, there doesn’t exist enough water to cope with that level of production. ⁴³
Agriculture takes up a lot of water usage, currently 70% of all human water usage is for irrigation⁴⁵.
The table below taken from the Unesco Green, blue and grey water report shows a breakdown of the water footprint of farm animals and animal products ⁴⁶.
From this table we can deduce that cows require a whole fuck ton of water, but if that’s the only thing we’re looking at then we’re missing a hugely important distinction. Water is broken down into three different types.
This is water which is pumped into crops via irrigation. When farmers turn on a sprinkler system to hose down crops they are using blue water.
Rainfall and the subsequent wet soil which stores it is classed as green water; it has no environmental cost because it occurs naturally.
All the pesticides and spill over waste products from industrial agriculture need to be watered down to an acceptable dilution that ticks a certain box in environmental standards. This is known as grey water.
Whilst there are huge variations from country to country (dependent upon climate and farming practices) there is in general a big jump in the amount of water types used for different farming practices.
So across the globe an average Grazed cow will use 21,121 cubic meters of green water per ton of beef, 465 C3/ton of blue water and 243 C3/ton of that dirty grey stuff.
On an industrial farm those figures change to 8,849 C3/ton for green (so less than 1/2 compared to grazed cattle), 683 C3/ton for blue (an additional 218 C3/ton) and 451 C3/ton for grey (208 C3/ton extra of honking diluted water)
That’s one heck of a lot of water, however most of this water is green water, natural rainfall and water resided in grass.
In grazing cattle 97% of the water they use is green, in Industrial that figure is 89%.
A study in the 1993 journal of Animal Science (I still have a copy if you want to borrow it?) showed that for every lb of beef produced approximately 410 gallons of water where used. This is the same requirement as a pound of rice, walnuts, avocados and sugar⁴⁷.
To put another angle on this, and to illustrate further just how fucked we are in case you’re looking for some positive glimmer of hope, agriculture is just one part of this water footprint slice of the global warming cake. It takes eleven thousands litres of water to produce a pair of jeans, there is a well known fashion retailer, who’ll send you those jeans by order, and if they don’t fit or you just don’t like them that’s fine, you can just send them back. At some point this company did an efficiency and productivity process evaluation and realised it would be cheaper to just throw those jeans away rather than have them repackaged and resold. In America alone around four hundred and fifty million pairs of jeans are sold each year⁵¹.
Car production takes up four hundred thousand litres of water per car, as if the whole exhaust fumes chocking us to death and killing us all slowly wasn’t bad enough⁴⁸.
And whilst water supplies are diminishing there is another huge crop that we should think about, our own gardens, a research team using data from Nasa estimated that garden lawns just may be the 2nd most irrigated crop in America⁵°.
Monogastric vs Ruminants
It’s worth pointing out the variation among different animals in terms of environmental impact. Most monogastric (single stomach) animals require less feed, take up less space, use less water and over all have a lower impact than ruminants (freaky four bellied hoofed aliens).
Research by Unesco found huge variations in the food conversion efficiency (so how much food you put in vs how much you get out) when analyzing animals across the globe using different farming practices. Whilst industrial production of animals seems to have a lower economic footprint (at least in terms of food efficiency) there are obvious ethical questions around welfare that need to be considered⁴⁶.
This then raises an interesting point, who might have the biggest environmental impact, a vegetarian who eats lots of dairy products, or a meat eater who isn’t keen on beef or dairy?
What might happen if we removed all animals from the human diet?
If everybody suddenly decided to go vegan tomorrow and eliminate all animal produce then climate change would be solved, we would have world peace, and Donald Trump would apologize to everybody for being such a dick and then turn into a unicorn and start farting rainbows.
A report by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that eliminating all livestock from the food chain would reduce global greenhouse emissions, but only by 2.6%., that isn't an insignificant amount, but hardly enough to prevent huge climate change.
In order to compensate for the lack of meat more calories would be consumed meaning an increase in non-meat food production, we’d have to get use to a much higher carbohydrates diet and nutrient deficiencies like calcium, Vitamin B12, Vitamin A, EPA, DHA an protein. (see my first article on this issue)
All food has an environmental impact, look back at those tables on methane emitters I mentioned earlier, look at the amount of methane produced by rice, which is a kind of man-made wetland. Think of all the water usage required to grow nuts in California, or the many animals which die during vegetable crop growth.
I’m not denying however that we do need to re-consider our consumption of meat, as in we need to dramatically reconsider it. Remember that massive increase we can expect in population I mentioned earlier? Well all those people are gonna be hungry, and as fortunes change, and more are lifted out of poverty, there is one thing on the menu that people are expected to want more off.
Meat demand is predicted to increase by 57% by 2050⁴² meeting this demand means more of the issues I’ve already mentioned, more land use, more emissions, and that’s presuming we could even meet this demand if we wanted to? What if we can’t? a food shortage? Riots? Starvation?
As I have alluded to in this article, many of the figures around meat production and climate change issues have been exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t significant enough that we shouldn’t be concerned, so if the likes of James Cameron really do give a fuck about saving the planet, they should start by using their considerable talents to portray factual information and avoid sensationalism.
It seems logical that many of the facets of our ordinary life must change dramatically in the next few decades, and the sooner the better. We can no longer take meat for granted; we can’t expect it to just be on hand in case we become peckish and discarded if we don’t.
According to NHS England a healthy diet should include at least two portions of fish a week, with one of those portions being oily fish⁵². Sound advice, fish is not only a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals, but it’s also our best source of Omega 3, an essential nutrient for healthy eyes, heart, brain and just about everything your body does daily.
In obese subjects on a diet those who took fish oil lost more weight, in a meta-analysis of studies those who ate the most fish had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, other promising benefits have been shown with certain cancers, brain development and bone health⁵⁶.
There is just one problem with this recommendation though, only 28% of people in the UK are actually taking heed of this advice even though fish and chips counts as one of your two a week⁵³, and perhaps that’s a good thing because an analysis of sixty four of the largest marine ecosystems, providing 84% of the Worlds catch, have estimated a complete collapse of our fishing system by 2048⁵⁴. But at least before it all collapses, the UK got its sovereignty back and reclaimed those fishing rights.
One solution to this could be Aquaculture, or fish farming, which has shown great potential in being able to deliver a sustainable source of oily fish and protein.
Aquaculture has grown about 9% a year since the 1970s, doubling demand in the last thirty years, in 2015 the industry was worth a hundred and fifty six billion dollars, ⁵⁸, by 2021 it's estimated to value over two hundred and nine billion dollars ⁷⁸.
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However there may be some serious downsides to growing those slippery bastards from scratch.
For one thing it cost a lot of energy to maintain these farms, they require pumps and various control systems to be able to properly maintain standards required by government regulations, there are also issues with welfare, decreased nutrition quality, anti-biotic use and resistance and decreased water quality⁵⁵.
Even when fish are well monitored and everything runs smoothly, we encounter another problem, in order to feed our badly kept future snacks we need some smaller fish species, so we take sand eels, European Sprat, sardines and anchovy and then we grind them and pulp them into little cakes to create fishmeal. So far so good, except for the rest of the ocean life who now have nothing to eat⁵⁸.
So it’s not just overfishing that’s an issue, the solution to help tackle a dwindling stock is actually making things worse for many other fish.
As a recent example of the kinds of issues we get with aquafishing, in 2016 the price of Salmon rose, as a direct result of an epidemic of sea lice hit fish farms on the west coast of Scotland⁵⁸.
Most British fish intake comes from the big five, together these fish make up about 75% of all fish sold in the UK⁵⁷.
Understandably these fish are the hardest hit, southern blue fin Tuna is now classed as critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), alongside Atlantic bluefin. Some have also raised concern about the overfishing of British Salmon and prawns.
The solution is thankfully quite simple, choosing different species of fish will give the big five a chance to replenish their stock, chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstalle and Jamie Oliver have ran campaigns calling for this.
For more information check out the top tips at the end of this article.
Before moving on, I should point out that part of the reason for overfishing is that 27% of our catch is fed to livestock or farmed fish, 90% of this food could be fed directly to humans.
Conventional agriculture Environmental impact
Fritz Harbour was born in Poland in 1868 to a wealthy Jewish family. As he grew up it became apparent, he was kind of a genius and whilst working as an academic at the University of Karlsruhe he developed the Harbour-Bosche process which eventually won him the Nobel prize in Chemistry.
It really can’t be underestimated how significant this achievement was in the development and growth of mankind. Nitrogen is present in the atmosphere, however in this form it’s unavailable to plants, however by fixing nitrogen with hydrogen to create ammonia, it became possible to mass produce industrial fertilizers. In turn, this allowed famers to be able to grow more food, which then helped fuel our massive modern-day population, about 40% of today’s population are alive because of this process⁶².
As a side note, Fritz then went on to work for the German Ministry of War where he developed chemical weapons such as Chlorine gas for use in trench warfare. This may in part be why his pacifist wife committed suicide. He was later called upon by the Nazi’s to contribute to World War Two, he refused, fled the country, and later died penniless. His work also helped develop zyklon B, the gas used to kill his fellow Jews in the concentration camps.
Whilst managing to solve hunger problems for many millions of people, the use of the Harbour Bosch process to produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizers led to some huge environmental consequences.
During fertilizer production, a by-product of small particles enters the atmosphere, which can enter deep into your lungs and blood stream, causing heart attacks, breathing problems and premature death⁶⁰.
These particles also increase haze in the atmosphere, which reduces visibility, when carried by wind they will eventually settle on either ground where they can damage forest and farm crops, or in water where they acidify lakes and streams. They can also contribute to acid rain.
Most of the world’s agriculture depends heavily on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, it’s estimated that these account for about 50% of the protein in our diet.
As human population has increased, so too has the use of these fertilizers, and with global warming and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere plants now need more and more of these to yield, and now we get to the biggest issue around all of this⁶⁰.
About half of all nitrogen in fertilizer is lost. Crops need many things to grow, nutrient rich soil, sunlight, and of course water, it’s that latter component which contributes to nitrogen loss. When crops are watered there is a nitrogen run off, this depletes the soil of nutrients, causing soil to become less fertile, which can lead to an increased use of nitrogen fertilizers.
The contaminated water can and does pollute rivers, streams, lakes and oceans, creating in some cases “dead zones” where algae forms on the surface of the water blocking sunlight and killing the fish below.
Some of this nitrogen run off water can also evaporate into the atmosphere, in some cases leading to acid rain⁶²,⁶³.
We all love ourselves a good ol portion of crops right? Nothing more most of us enjoy than sitting down on the couch after a hard day and getting our munch on with some delicious, tasty crops.
Hey, you know who else likes crops? Why pests of course, those pesty little pests love to get their munch on with our food, and if left unchecked, those bastards can cause famine and lead to the death or millions.
In China during the early days of Chairman Mau, during “the great leap forward” in 1958 Chinese citizens where actively encouraged and often rewarded to kill “the four pests” sparrows, rats, mosquitos and flies.
Sparrows ate grain and seed fruit, and so where declared the “Public birds of capitalism” Villagers would all gather in a relentless pursuit of bird death, nest where destroyed, eggs smashed and chicks stamped on.
A Polish embassy where some birds took refuge refused entry to villagers wishing to kill the sparrows, so instead they surrounded the building and banged drums constantly for two days. The Poles had to use shovels to clear the floor of dead sparrows..
Alongside seed and grains Sparrows also like to eat locust, with no predator to control locust populations they expanded, which devasted crops and resulted in the great Chinese famine, estimates of fifteen to forty five million deaths from starvation. To help solve this the government eventually had to import 250,000 sparrows from the soviets⁶⁴.
It seems trying to control those pesty little pests is a pesky problem. Scientist and data analysts have spent years working out what might harm our crops and how to prevent it whilst minimizing environmental damage. It’s a delicate balance, kill one predator and you get a surge in it’s prey, if you don’t kill a fungus you could end up wiping out your entire crop, every year billions of pounds are lost in an attempt to control agriculture growth.
Enter pesticides, the chemical solution for when you absolutely positively have to kill every mutha fucking pests (and funghi, weed, rodent, butterfly, bee etc) in the whole god damn field. Accept no substitutions.
Whilst helping to protect our foods, pesticides can have huge environmental impacts, most countries have tight controls on what can and can’t be used, and over the years many pesticides have been banned due to detrimental health impact links, however most of our food is grown abroad, where bans either aren’t enforced, or are done so with little teeth.
A big issue with certain pesticides and the way they are used is when they become airborne, such as when sprayed onto crops, during this process they are capable of vapourizing and being blown downwind into areas where they can cause harm to wildlife, livestock and contamintate human habitats.
It’s estimated that seventy two millions birds die each year as a result of this, either directly through airborne spray or through eating smaller animals which have come into contact with these chemicals, this may explain why globally the bee population has been so badly blighted that our whole agriculture system is now threatened ⁶⁵,⁷⁰.
Pesticides can also spill into water, either directly through the soil, being sprayed outside of their area or through accidental spillage, a UK Government study revealed that concentrations of pesticides in UK Groundwater and rivers exceeded maximum levels allowed for safe drinking water⁶⁸.
Pesticides can also lead to pretty shitty soil quality, making it less capable of holding water and reducing biodiversity.
You don’t have to be a Green peace activist to acknowledge that pesticides can have very real health implications in humans, causing hormone disruptions, tumours and deaths. This is why they are monitored so closely, and it’s also why many are banned in this country.
Other countries however are more callous on this issue, those working on farms in poverty often come into close contact with heavy amounts of banned pesticides, the younger the person is the more likely they are to be harmed by those chemicals, which is a shame because many children work on those farms. They arn't the only illiterate people on the farms who can’t read the labels and who have no idea of what chemicals they are using, or even how to use them properly. The recent PPE crisis in hospitals and are homes is comparable to the PPE those in impoverished farming communities living below the poverty line have needed for decades.
Whilst the World Health Organization is working closely with developing countries to try and counteract this problem, its an uphill struggle, many of the banned pesticides still being used and are often repackaged to look like safer alternatives.
Organic produce isn’t just for self righteous health guru’s and “influencers”.
When food is grown without the use of pesticides or fertilizers farmers have to rely on alternative chemicals alongside old timey methods such as mulch, netting, weeding, and huge quantities of elbow grease.
Before I’m shot down in flames for bringing up Organic produce, let me just state that this isn’t realistically a viable option for feeding the masses, it’s massively labour intensive, for potentially much lower yields, and yet there has to be some kind of half way meeting point here, as current methods are short sighted in regards to long term sustainability, as soil becomes poorer and poorer, pest become resistant to current pesticides, a vicious cycle begins where by we end up having to use yet more fertilizer and yet stronger pesticides.
It isn’t as though farmers aren’t already aware of these issues and trying to find ways to solve them, for example British farmers already use green manure such as rape seed crop to help fix nitrogen in soil, rop rotation also helps, and growing legumes can help to fix nitrogen in the soil before another crop is used, we can then eat those legumes.
Attenborough McAttenborough face has spent decades trying to get through to us on the importance of our planet, and in his last few years before the nation decides to freeze him so that his genius can be preserved for future generations, he may have actually succeeded, not long after his Blue Planet series people finally started to give a fuck about the use of plastics in the food chain.
So they should too, the bottom of our Oceans accumulates eight million tonnes of plastics per year⁷³, those plastics break down, when pieces become smaller than 5mm in length, they become classed as micro plastics, and when they get smaller still, to the point where they are invisible to the eye, they’re classed as nano plastics.
These plastics are very long lasting, they don’t breakdown easily, they absorb other pollutants sitting on the surface of the Ocean which are hydrophobic (water hating) and want to be separated from the water.
The big issue with all of this? These plastics get eaten, they enter small species and as they travel further up the food chain they increase in their toxic load..
According to Dr Woodall, a researcher at Oxford University “plastics are in nearly every food we eat, they’re in my cup of tea, I breathe them in everyday”
But completely removing plastics isn’t necessarily the answer, they can play an important role in expanding the shelf life of our products and thereby reducing the amount of food we waste (reminder: we waste about a third of our food) according to the British plastics foundation (who of course will have their own biases)
The use of plastic packaging can add three days to bananas (or you can just buy them a little greener) Plastic can add up to ten days to a steak, they reduce the waste of potatoes by two thirds. A cucumber wrapped in plastic will last fourteen days longer than a cucumber without plastic⁷².
This is a tricky point of contention though, one study showed that some plastic packaging did not lower food waste, in fact one example showed that green beans which had been cut to fit packaging resulted in about 30 to 40% of them being wasted⁷⁴.
Producers do not really want to use more plastics than they need to, not because they give a fuck about the environment, but because just a few grams more packaging per product can add up to thousands of extra pounds per crop. This might be why they have cut plastics by nearly a third since 2004.
There must still be room for improvement, but partly this is where our own responsibility comes back into it, plastics can mostly be recycled, and it only takes a little extra effort to wash them and put them in the blue bin.
“Being a fat bastard takes its toll on the environment”
As humans we need calories to survive and thrive, proteins are important not just for muscle building but for regeneration of skin, nails, hair, hormones and enzymes, carbohydrates are needed for brain and muscle fuel, digestive equilibrium (especially fibre) and production of certain neurotransmitters, fats are needed for brain and eye tissue, organ protection and reserve energy. Moreover, various vitamins and minerals and antioxidants help with every regeneration process.
But over and above these needs are just wasted excess calories, we do not need them, and with every biscuit, chocolate bar, pack of crisps or ice cream we’re just driving up the food miles, packaging cost and unnecessary usage of land.
That being said, I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t enjoy food, I like biscuits, Ice cream, crisps etc, I like alcohol, but I have to recognize that these aren’t necessary foods and we should limit our consumption if not for our own health then for the health of our environment. Should we over consume calories of any sort then we have the environmental issue of obesity.
Over the last two decades a prominent number of research scientist have attempted to look at the evidence of increased obesity and environmental impact. A 2008 paper in the Lancet estimated that Obese people require an additional 8% of calories on average than most, with a whopping 35% greater impact on environment (transport of additional calories plus personal impact as obese more often eat take away food and consume items with greater environmental impact such as burgers)⁷⁵.
It is not just the excess calories which are a problem here, it’s where they’re coming from and the environmental impact. For example, most processed foods contain palm oil, the deforestation, wildlife killing, human poverty and suffering secret behind our tasty morsels⁷⁶.
This is an extremely complicated topic with various amounts of conflicting data from seemingly reliable resources. For every environmental suggestion there is often a trade-off, you put in a tax or regulation here and you get an unexpected consequence elsewhere, for example we could all go vegan tomorrow, but then what would we do with all the animals currently living? How would people in impoverished communities get hold of quorn burgers and would we expect them to continue without cattle to help keep their lands fertile?
Would reducing plastic packaging mean more food waste? And perhaps more importantly, what real difference can be made on an individual level?
The more I’ve looked into this the more I’ve realized that most of the big changes need to happen from the top down, it’s the collaborative work of Scientist which needs to dictate our forward seeking environmental food policies, and this shouldn’t be influenced by industries which have a shorter term agenda on profit.
This might mean making tough choices which are unpopular, it could mean raising taxes or restructuring industry in a way that seeks more harmony with the environment at the cost of some profit. It might even mean making life more uncomfortable for many of us, so that future generations inherit a better Earth. How many would truly be willing to make that sacrifice?
Eating to save the world tips.
1. Eat less
Having a bigger purpose can help encourage and motivate people to success. There are countless stories of people who have lost weight so that they could be an organ donor for someone they love, or people who have taken up exercise to help raise money for a charity close to their heart and as a result dramatically improved their own health.
Now we can all add in an extra motivation, eating less reduces our environmental footprint and helps ensure that there are more calories for other people on this planet (about a third are suffering from malnutrition, one in nine go to bed hungry each night77) and for future generations.
For those of you who can't yet afford a Tesla this gives you an easier and cheaper way of feeling smug.
2. Waste less
There are lots of ways to reduce waste, you could plan your weeks meals in advance, ensuring you only shop for what you need, you could learn to make more of left overs, use more of the veg you chop etc. The website https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/ has some great resources to help you.
Food waste accounts for most of our environmental diet print, so this is probably the most important point to address.
3. We need to change our relationship with meat, especially beef, and be more selective about where it comes from.
I’ve let my own bias influence too much of this article, if you look into the references I’ve provided, most environmental experts believe that going vegetarian is better for the environment.
I’m still resistant to going vegetarian (for health reasons, personal preference and other factors) and yet I must acknowledge that the relationship we have with meat in this day and age is a million miles away from how we’ve evolved.
Over millennia we have gone from being hunter gatherers taking down prey with spears fashioned from branches and sharp rocks, to picking up a cartoon character shaped pack of ham for our kids in the supermarket on the way home.
When raising or hunting animals, then killing them, using every part, a bond is formed, a form of appreciation and respect takes place. Meat was never meant to be eaten just because the urge for a bacon buttie took us as we drove by a roadside Kiosk.
I’m still going to continue to eat meat, but I’ll personally be limiting my intake to home cooked or restaurant prepared cuts that have had some time and care put into them. I may still go to Mcdonalds once in a while, perhaps even Greggs, but it will be a rare occurance, eventually I foresee that establishments such as these will have to make dramatic changes if we are serious about environmental protection.
There are over 150,000 edible plants on this planet, yet we mostly subside on just three⁴⁴. An over reliance on wheat, rice and maize puts us in a vulnerable position should anything happen to them. As the planet warms, certain crops are under threat. The Irish relied heavily on potatoes in the 19th century, a devastating crop yield saw hunger and starvation kill nearly a quarter of the population.
More variety in crops also means better soil quality with increased crop rotation. Eating different foods from time to time might also make you a more interesting person, you might even discover foods that you really like eating.
5. Alternative fish recipes
Fish can provide a really important part of our diet, providing protein, omega 3 and other important nutrients, but our reliability on the big five is draining our ocean of resources, once in a while try to get on Google and find new and interesting recipes for the fish such as clams, mussels, scallops, herring and anchovies.
I’d personally suggest a paella, or alternative fish topped pizza. These ingredients would also go well with garlic sauce and crusty bread.
6. Buy local, grow your own, choose organic where you can
If everybody grew just a few tomatoes, maybe some strawberries too, it would have a significant impact on our environment. I don't know exactly how significant, because at this stage in the article I can't be bothered to go find the research that supports this statement, however I'm not sure it really needs any underlying data.
Growing your own food, if only just a little bit, can help you save some money on your shopping, and unlike supermarket food which could be days or even weeks old by the time you purchase it, food from your own garden or just a plantpot on your windowsill can provide nutrients fresh to your plate in just minutes, with zero packaging, zero transport cost and zero need for a poster of likeable looking farmer trying to convince you to support their business by taking advantage of the special offer on isle seven.
7. Limit plastic packaging
Bananas already packaged in a plastic bag in most supermarkets often cost more than the fresh bananas right next to them, why this is I have no idea, it's also noteworthy that whilst some products might well have a longer shelf life with packaging, the need to individually wrap items within packaging seems a waste of time, money and resources. Paper bags may not be much better, it could be that re-using bags and picking loose fruits and veg at your local green grocers is your best soloution here, alongside tupperware containers to take to your butcher or fishmonger.
8.Buy Fair Trade
It's not a perfect system, nothing is, but fair trade is at least a decent attempt to redress the imbalance in wages, sustainable agriculture and ethical practice in economies too far away for us to really know what's going on.
9. Eat seasonal
It seems kind of strange to want to eat strawberries at Christmas, we've gotten used to a year round supply of anything we want, including cadburys cream eggs, which is traditionally the food that would have only been eaten by Jesus and his mates around Easter time.
To get a grasp of what's currently available to eat check out Eat the Seasons for ideas, this should, in theory at least, lower the cost of food transport and ensure best quality of foods at the right time of year whilst allowing space for continued regrowth of food and longer term sustainability.
10. Go Hungry once in a while .
This kind of ties in with point one, but it's worth re-itterating because it gives me a nice even list of suggestions and highlights the environmental impact of overconsumption.
This is a useful spiritual exercise, it teaches appreciation, helps with long term weight management and as a bonus could have a significant impact on the environment if eveyrone in the West did this. It can be hard to gain perspective on this, but most people when dieting feel hard done to when they think think that they can't have an ice cream, or a biscuit or doughnut. I get that, dieting is hard, but consider the fact that nearly a third of the World's population suffers with some form of malnutrition, and one in nine people go to bed every night with an empy stomach.
In closing I'd like to thank you for taking the time to read this article, it's took me longer to write than any other article I've ever written, because I wanted to be absolutely certain on the facts. If you have further information you'd like to point out to me then please get in touch, I welcome constructive critisism.
I hope I'm wrong about the World being fucked, I hope the current situtaiton is reversable, and not just by Scientist solving climate change with some kind of weather machine, but by individual action and Global accountability.
Or at least, let's hope that climate change really is a hoax, and that we make all this effort to make the World a better place for nothing :)
5. Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018)
15. Frank Mitloehner
21. FAO Report
28. Ted ideas
29. Frank Mitloehner
30. N20 sources
33. UN Climate facts
46. Unesco Report
50. Nassa work
51. Fact Shop
52. NHS England
53. Seafish report
62. B.H.Byrnes (1990)
63. BBC News
67. Köhler, Triebskorn (2013)
75. J Squali (2016)
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