Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Meating the Challenge

Meat eating appeared again on the Today programme today (1 September 2014 BBC Radio4). The essential argument is that using animals as part of the processing chain to turn the nutrition available from plants into food for humans is inefficient in terms of both energy use (and CO2 emissions) and land use. It is unsustainable – it is far more efficient if we cut out the animals and eat plants directly.

Research from Cambridge and Aberdeen universities estimates greenhouse gases from food production will go up 80% if meat and dairy consumption continues to rise at its current rate.
BBC News Website 1 September 2014 : Greenhouse gas fear over increased levels of meat eating

It’s an uncomfortable – but compelling argument.

OK, the world is not about to fall in, but the situation is rapidly becoming less stable:

  1. The World’s population is growing – probably exponentially,
  2. The developing world desires a similar diet to the so-called developed world – which means more meat-eating.

As with all exponential changes, at some stage there will be a crunch. Global crunches (such as the 1970s oil shock) are uncomfortable – and if it involves something as fundamental as what we eat, “uncomfortable” will probably be an understatement.

The crunch could come from a number of areas:

  1. Deforestation (reducing the planet’s ability to absorb CO2) to provide more pasture for animal grazing. Animals also add to methane emissions.
  2. Energy and CO2 use to process and transport animals or meat across the world.
  3. Unrest caused by increasing meat prices as demand outstrips supply.
  4. Health problems (obesity, diabetes, food poisoning, even vCJD) arising from poorer parts of society eating poor quality (or even bad) meat and processed meals.
  5. Health problems (obesity, heart disease, some cancers) throughout society at least partly due to excess meat consumption.

“The average efficiency of livestock converting plant feed to meat is less than 3%, and as we eat more meat, more arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals that provide meat for humans.
ibid – quoting Bojana Bajzelj from the University of Cambridge

So what’s to be done?

  1. Move towards a more vegetarian diet. (But I like meat!)
    1. Requires availability of interesting vegetables – or (unlikely) toleration of a boring diet (as most of this country suffered a few centuries ago)
    2. Needs to avoid massive move towards growing “fancy” vegetables out of season under glass houses
    3. Needs to avoid massive move towards flying out of season and foreign vegetables into the country
    4. People need to know how to cook vegetables – a skill that has certainly been lost as the country has abandoned culinary education in favour of packaged food. How many people know how to cook an onion – other than by frying to a cinder? Boil – how long? Roast – how long, what temperature?
    5. People need to understand nutrition. Balanced vegetarian diets are possible – but just replacing all your meat with cabbage is probably not a good idea!
  2. Try meat substitution and meat-free days
    1. This is really a variation on (1) above but with extra piety. But hey every little helps!
    2. Substitution may not necessarily improve the situation. In response to increasing meat prices I have noticed that I am eating more cheese. This of course is still animal reliant and therefore subject to the processing inefficiencies already discussed.
  3. More efficient use of what meat we do eat
    1. Meat needs to be locally grown – which has issues about equality of availability.
    2. Meat needs to be locally slaughtered – to keep down food miles.
    3. We need to eat all the meat on a carcase – and find uses for the inedible parts of animals (skin, bones etc.). Since BSE the eating of offal (internal organs and entrails) has declined substantially as health fears has generated a yuck factor around previous delicacies such as kidneys or liver.
    4. We need to avoid waste – apparently a lot of meat on a roast chicken carcases is wasted simply because after we have taken off the breast meat, the drumsticks and the wings, we don’t know how to deal with the rest – plucking off meat to go into curries or sandwiches or boiling down a carcase for chicken soup. Many of us have lost those skills.
    5. Butchery by shops needs to be more “small household” friendly. You rarely see half-chickens sold to enable single person households to have a roast chicken dinner without condemning themselves to eating chicken continuously for four or five days (or going into extra steps to process and freeze “left overs”). Likewise small joints suitable for a couple (“roast today, cold with salad tomorrow”) are rare in supermarkets.
    6. Chicken is, I am told, a more efficient form of meat production that larger animals. If its use is to be encouraged, the associated food hygiene issues have to be tackled.
    7. Weekly food waste collections get round the problem of having to wrap up food waste (like bones) and storing them in the fridge for quite so long.

In Britain we have a government which is pro small state and disinclined to be interventionist. However, many of the steps above require government intervention.

  1. To remove incentives supporting “the wrong sort of agriculture”
  2. To resist the (processed) food industry lobby
  3. To encourage good practice – with enforceable regulation if necessary
  4. To ensure that the population is educated in nutrition – not just as an abstract science for high-fliers, but as a practical skill for all.

I suspect that education is a bigger problem than many of our “ruling classes” believe. We have had processed foods for more than a generation. This means that parents brought up to believe that cooking is sticking a polystyrene tray of gloop in a microwave are unable to teach their children. (This is not just an issue with cash-poor families, it is also an issue with time-poor families.)

There is a vicious circle to break. If you only know how to heat up microwave meals, you will only buy microwave meals. (Been there – when living in a small flat with a tiny kitchen but with a demanding job – just buy a selection of food packs from Sainsburys each Friday.) That does not encourage supermarkets to carry a range of foods “cook-able from raw” – and it pushes butchers and grocers out of business. If we cannot cook and cannot get real food, we cannot control our diet and start to address the meat challenge.



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