Hidden truth: Meat the real cause of climate change

Made by Anissa Putois: quote from documentary film Meat the Truth

Made by Anissa Putois: quote from documentary film Meat the Truth

Like the prospect of a giant meteor disintegrating Earth, climate change used to be one of those issues too abstract to consider changing your lifestyle for. But the recent media portrayal of extreme weather events has put environmentalism back on the map.

We’re advised to recycle, buy eco light bulbs, forego driving when we can, and take shorter showers. Yet one major contributor to global warming is often overlooked.

“You’re not an environmentalist if you eat meat,” said James Cameron in a speech in 2012. This controversial assumption has been verified by numerous scientific reports.

Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest report, ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’. It cited “changes in diet” as a potential solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers from the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden also released a recent study concluding that decreasing production of animal products was essential in curbing anthropogenic global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

“We have shown that reducing meat and dairy consumption is key to bringing agricultural climate pollution down to safe levels,” said Fredrik Hedenus, one of the study’s authors.

This study is not the first to warn us about the dangers of our meat-heavy diet. In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s report Livestock’s Long Shadow revealed that meat and dairy production generated 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The UN further encouraged reduced meat consumption in 2008 and 2010.

In a 2009 interview with The Times, climate specialist Lord Stern said: “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”

If meat and dairy are so harmful to our environment, why isn’t the message hammered home?

Infographic by Anissa Putois, images from Public Domain, information from Gosford City Council

Infographic by Anissa Putois, images from Public Domain, information from Gosford City Council

Radio Silence

A 2009 report revealed that US newspapers largely overlooked the correlation between meat production and global warming.

Closer to home, research undertaken on five Australian newspapers by Judith Friedlander, a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, showed that less than 0.01 per cent of articles featuring the words “meat” or “livestock” mentioned their impact on climate change.

If the issue is raised at all, it is inevitably followed and trivialised by an article promoting meat: teaching readers how to ‘make their own bacon’ or how to cook it to perfection.

Ask anyone to give up eating meat to save the planet and chances are you’ll get a negative, often incendiary response. Publications not only ignore livestock’s contribution to global warming, they give voice to those who deny it.

“The media give the other side equal time. But why should you have to?” asks Judith Friedlander.

Several articles advertise dietary change as unsustainable and unnecessary.

Enteric fermentation and livestock’s high production of methane is played down. It’s difficult for readers to judge the argument seriously when all they remember is the laughable topic of “cow farts”.

The Big Guys

Politicians are equally uncomfortable publicising the matter.

“Government is to do with big power, big economic and political groups like the Meat and Livestock Association and the farmers,” Friedlander explains. Economic gain lies with industry and lobby groups, and therefore governments don’t dare question meat production.

In an interview for Vox, Michael Pollan—author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma—mentions the American government’s fear of food producers. He explains why politicians steer clear of dietary matters: “People’s eating choices are more fundamental and closely tied to their identity than their driving decisions. If you challenge my right to have a cheeseburger, that’s getting a little intimate.”

The Sanctity of Diet

Asking someone to change their light bulbs is all well and good, but if their eating habits are scrutinised suddenly environmentalism isn’t so appealing. All of a sudden personal choice is being compromised. We’ll recycle, drive less and switch the lights off, but the food on our plate is inviolable.

We consider altering cows’ basic genes to limit flatulence before considering eating less of them. We’d even spend billions on cloned animal flesh rather than forego meat altogether.

“Climate change invokes conflict,” Friedlander says, “and conflict is a news value, but only when it’s out there. When the conflict relates to you—and climate change relates to you, me, everyone—it’s way too confronting.”

Spreading the word

Health is a potent channel through which the message can be diffused.

While climate change is not concrete enough, our physical wellbeing certainly is. It’s hard to visualise the impact meat-eating has on the planet. The cost of a medical bill is much more relatable.

Dr Fiona Stanley told the Sydney Morning Herald that the medical community should be doing more to “sell the health benefits of climate change policies such as […] reducing consumption of animal products.”

When contacted by email, she said: “Those things which you could personally do to reduce emissions [walk more, eat less meat] are actually beneficial to your own health as well as the planet’s.”

Judith Friedlander proposes another strategy to encourage people to reduce their meat consumption. She believes in adopting a “foodie” perspective and making meat-free meals seem more desirable by “focusing on the pleasurable aspect of eating and trying to elevate vegetarian options into the aspirational basket”.

The Chalmers researchers suggest raising the price of meat by implementing a tax system. “Implementing a tax or emission trading scheme on livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions could be an economically sound policy that would modify consumer prices and affect consumption patterns.”

But Friedlander doesn’t see taxation as a viable option: “You could put a carbon tax on everything that produces a lot of greenhouse gases and that includes farming but I can’t see that happening. It would really impact on the industry and the balance of payments as well as the cross-national product.”

Change is a-coming

On a day of undercover abattoir footage, antibiotic-pumped chicken and horse lasagne, foregoing meat has never seemed more desirable. A rising number of people are self-identifying as vegetarians and vegans.

Kym Staton, founder of the Sydney Vegan’s Club, said that about 100 new members joined the group each month, with a little under half being new vegans taking part in the ’30-day go vegan challenge’.

“There is an exponential curve happening with membership,” Staton said. “It’s gradually speeding up”. Numbers have doubled since just last year, which saw only about 50 new members per month.

Mark Bittman’s book VB6 advocating a vegan diet before 6pm came out last year, embodying a new trend: the ‘flexitarian’ diet, wherein people consciously reduce the amount of meat they consume for health or environmental reasons.

US-based incentives such as Meat-Free Mondays and Meat-Free Week have spread to  Australia and abroad.

The message that meat is harmful to our planet is slowly seeping into our collective consciousness. But is slow change enough? “We don’t have a lot of time,” warns Friedlander. Is this a case of slow and steady losing the race?

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