Many of us have a curious relationship with meat. More than any other food item, meat makes a meal. It is the centerpiece of a Sunday lunch or dinner with the family. Serving a prime cut is a sure sign of a generous host. Meat is manly.
Some of these views about meat are arguably a carry over from times when it was difficult or expensive for the average household to obtain meat. Now that meat is (too?) reasonably priced, many of us can afford to feature large quantities of meat as part of our diets. And so we do — our consumption of animal products has increased by 100% from 1970 to 2013. If we continue this trend, there will be a further 60% increase by 2030 (see this resource from the Research Program On Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security).
Many of us might be able to financially afford to eat more meat. Increasingly, however, we are being asked to consider whether our health and our environment can afford our taste for meat.
The Cambridge Food Security Forum asked the Cambridge community to consider this issue at Squash the Beef, a public discussion held at the wonderful Espresso Library.
Professor Tim Benton, the UK Champion for Global Food Security and Professor of Population Ecology at Leeds, started the evening by setting out the impact of meat consumption on the environment. The facts are quite extraordinary. For me, the most striking is that, at current rates of consumption, by 2045 agriculture will take up the entire budget of carbon dioxide emissions that we can afford to emit if we want to avoid large global temperature rises. Put another way, we will not be able to afford to have emissions from manufacturing or transportation.
Clearly something has to give. Some options come to mind after hearing from Tim that we typically overeat protein by two to three times and that intensively grown beef results in emissions roughly an order of magnitude higher than other meats. (The numbers can get confusing because animals are raised in such different environments. Sometimes lamb is the biggest culprit when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions.)
But that is not to say that meat needs to be eliminated from diets entirely. Tim Hayward, a food writer and broadcaster, led an interesting discussion on this point. Tim sees a continued role for meat in our diets. He thinks that by engaging with where meat comes from — how the meat gets from field to plate — and by eating higher quality meat less often we can move to more sustainable meat consumption. He also spoke of how he has confidence in selecting parts of an animal that are usually considered undesirable offcuts and cooking those up into something delicious — the nose–to–tail principle.
The final speaker for the evening was Alice Kabala. Alice is a food blogger at Thoughtful Forkfuls and a chef at CAMYOGA in Cambridge. She spoke about her own decision to turn to a plant-based diet and how it is possible to obtain enough protein and critical nutrients from vegetable sources (of course, acknowledging that B12 is lacking and needs to be supplemented). It was a refreshing discussion of how it is possible to have a nutritious and varied diet without consuming meat.
Coming away from the evening, I was excited by the level of awareness and interest in this important issue. I really like that the discussion around meat consumption is becoming more focused on environmental impact. Partially because we are all tired of the inconsistent messages about the dietary impact of eating this and that (although there does at least seem to be consensus that processed meats are not good for us). And partially because focusing on the environment really does highlight that this is not a matter of personal choice. How can it be when meat consumption has such a large global impact in the form of contributing to climate change?
The message of the evening was not that everyone should switch to a plant-based diet. Indeed, one of the important messages was that avoiding meat consumption is a luxury that some people do not have — for some communities, fish and meat provide a critical, local protein source. But for those of us in more economically developed countries like the United Kingdom, I do not think there are any grounds for shirking the need to, at least partially, squash the beef.
This event was made possible by the generous support of Cumberland Lodge, the Cambridge Strategic Initiative on Global Food Security and Quorn.
If you are interested in learning more about how we might go about achieving a sustainable food system, follow Cambridge Food Security Forum on Twitter @CamFSF. At the Forum, we are interested in food and the complex interplay of culture, politics, economics and science that determines whether everyone has access to a safe, sufficient and stable supply of nutritious food.