Will being a Vegetarian Save the Planet? - Conclusions

I’ve tried to summarise what is a complex issue to the best of my ability. In the end, I don’t think you can realistically say that meat isn’t bad for the environment, even though there are some ways to reduce this impact. The trouble is, all the ways I mentioned to lessen meats impact are not the ways we produce meat. Even if they were, it still seems like if you care for the environment the best solution would be to reduce our consumption of meat and thus lessen the overall impact.

Note that’s reduction rather than abstention. I think that is the better way: trust me, giving up meat is hard, or at least it is for some people. I remember staring in my friend’s fridge at some sausage rolls for a good twenty minutes one time… Reduction is much easier to grasp and as I discussed meat is very important to people and perhaps to our identities as humans. Telling people that meat is bad and they can’t have any seems counter-productive, asking them to consider reducing to alleviate cruelty and help the environment, whilst perhaps being healthier is a much better method.

You only need to look at some of the headlines I talked about in the first part of this to see what I mean. People tend to exhibit something known as confirmation bias when it comes to meat – they want to believe that meat-eating is not environmentally damaging so they write articles about how it isn’t and share them profusely. The same thing happens with health.

In 2014, an article in the independent gleefully reported on a study that seemed to show that vegetarians are less healthy and have a lower quality life[1]. The study in question[2] was exaggerated by the media, who claimed it showed increased risk of heart disease which it did not, and they neglected to mention that the study was only on 330 people (small for this type of study) and that you couldn’t prove causation of the diseases they mentioned. Some people could have become vegetarian because they had a disease rather than the other way around. None of that has stopped people still writing and sharing this study three years on. You can’t just tell people to give it up, you need a softer touch.

In some ways meat is an easy target for environmentalists. It seems easier to convince people to give up meat than it is battle all the complex issues that are damaging our planet. We don’t need it, so get rid of it. They are largely right, but to really battle the problems facing our planet we need a concerted effort on multiple fronts. Even if everyone suddenly became vegetarian tomorrow I suspect that the devastation caused by meat-eating would be replaced by something else. If you remember, a lot of the serious effects of meat-eating were down to the way we do agriculture altogether, rather than meat in isolation.

If the environment is truly something we are interested in, then we need to convince governments and those in power that this is an issue worth their time. In a capitalist system, this can be achieved by our buying choices. Buy less meat and we can show them that this is an issue that’s important to us. Of course, consumerism has its own issues…

In the end, there is no simple answer to this question. It’s a shame, as when people think about the environment, sometimes they just want to be told what to do. Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. The earth is a vast and complex system of interactions, and humans as a species are a diverse and variable impact on that system. With a question like this you could probably find whatever answer you wanted by looking at certain aspects, as whole though, it looks like your meat-eating is something at least worth thinking about.

Being a vegetarian may not save the planet, but reducing your meat intake may help.

Key points

1.     Meat is part of our evolutionary history and later become a sign of status and wealth, perhaps promoting meat-based diets when the option became available

2.     Meat production causes environmental destruction: deforestation, desertification and pollution. The biggest impacts come from not livestock per se but the production of their food.

3.     Meat production doesn’t have to be as damaging as it is, we don’t need to produce as much meat as we do, it may even be healthier and less cruel to eat less meat.

4.     While the negative health impacts of meat may be overstated there do seem to be effects from red and processed meat. In moderation, there is no difference between meat-eating and vegetarianism for most people.

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Further Reading

Should We Eat Meat? Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory – Vaclav Smil, 2013

Livestock’s Long Shadow – FAO, Steinfeld et al., 2006

NHS choices:  Meat in your diet

Animal Liberation – Peter Singer, 1995

References

1.         Heather Saul. Vegetarians are 'less healthy and have a lower quality of life than meat-eaters', scientists say. Independent. 2014.

2.         Nathalie T Burkert, Johanna Muckenhuber, Franziska Großschädl, Eva Rásky, Wolfgang Freidl. Nutrition and health–the association between eating behavior and various health parameters: a matched sample study. PloS one. 2014;9(2):e88278.