In November 2021, Oxford University Union chaired a debate on the proposition, “This House Would Move Beyond Meat.” Participants included VBites entrepreneur, Heather Mills, now infamous feminist and author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams, and carnivore diet advocate and podcaster, Mikhaila Peterson. But behind all the memes and mockery which came from the recordings, there arises a pertinent moral question concerning our individual diets and their impacts on the environment. It has been proposed, by supra-national institutions like the World Economic Forum, that we will “eat much less meat” by the end of the decade “for the good of the environment and our health.” So, should we martyr our meat eating to fight climate change? Or will abolishing our carnivorous instinct make no, or even negative, impacts on adverse environmental trends?
An average UK consumer eats 82kg (181lbs.) of meat annually, producing 2.5 times more carbon emissions than a vegan diet of equal calories. Cows and lamb require eight times the feed and a metre square more per gram of protein to produce one kilogram of meat than pork or poultry. Twenty-six percent of global emissions are a consequence of food production. Fifty percent of food emissions come from meat farming. Cows alone are responsible for up to 65 percent of livestock emissions. Seaweed diets may reduce the methane produced by cows — but issues arise with sustainably growing seaweed in our increasingly plasticised oceans.
It is incontestable that existing livestock farming practices can contribute to anthropogenic environmental degradation. One study goes as far as suggesting that the only models for farming to meet the population increase by 2050 are predicated on an exclusion of livestock farming.
Enter: plant-based alternatives.
You may be familiar with the phrase “Beyond Meat”. It’s been used for meat-free impersonation products by McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut. The Beyond branding is licenced from a company with the same name, backed by investors passionate on climate issues, like Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio. Gates has become the largest private owner of farmland in America — presumably to eventually convert the soybean animal feed crops he grows into pea pods for plant patties. Beyond uses legumes, sunflower lecithin, coconut oil, and cocoa butter to form a soy-free alternative to beef, pork, and chicken. (Burger King sells a similar soy-based Impossible Whopper.)
Vegan agriculture is not without its sustainability challenges, though. Three avocadoes require almost 300 litres of water to grow, and are farmed frequently on land owned by Latin American cartels for over $100 million annually. Quinoa is now unaffordable for those who farm it in Peru and Bolivia due to western demand. Many vegan staples contain palm oil, responsible for widespread deforestation and farmers being subjected to impoverished lifestyles and dangerous working conditions. Alternatives, like olive and sunflower oils, require five to eight times more land to produce the same quantity of fat — an issue aiming to be alleviated by skyscraper sized climate-controlled greenhouses.
Nutritional issues must also be addressed. Beyond burgers are not necessarily healthier than traditional fast food menu items: containing more calories, fat, and salt in some instances. The process by which protein for plant-based alternatives is extracted and transformed into imitation beef depletes peas of minerals like magnesium, folate, and potassium. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the increased atmospheric CO2 modelled in various climate scenarios will increase crop yields significantly. However, research by Arizona State University’s Irakli Loladze modelled how photosynthetic food affected animals consuming them, and found that additional atmospheric carbon dioxide increased glucose production in plants, but was without an equal increase in soil nutrient absorption. Twenty-five minerals like iron, iodine and zinc — already deficient in the diets of half of the humans — could see an 8 percent decrease across diets worldwide. When 40 percent of calories consumed by humans consist of rice and wheat, this could mean the disparity between calorie surpluses and nutrient malnutrition increases. As anthropologist Vybarr Cregan-Reid wrote, this could mean a loaf of bread from the 18th century was more nutrient-dense than any capable of being baked today.
Many of these issues may be surmountable through genetic modification. There are successful instances of transgenic crops with high yields, increased vitamin content, and resistance to drought, pestilence, and disease. Public opinion appears favourable — however, some still harbour concerns about a lack of long-term testing and potential for mishandled or manipulated crop contents.
Consumers must, therefore, be provided a choice of both vertically farmed, genetically modified plant-based diets, and organic crop and livestock farming.
The notion that meat eating is unnecessary is nonsense. Research in Nature asserts that raw root vegetables and foliage consumed by our primate ancestors were less nutritionally dense than animal protein — meaning meat-eating increased our brain capacity, and reduced the size of our intestinal tracts. Palaeolithic hunting and cooking practices reduced the number of chewing cycles per year by almost 2 million, and the force needed to chew by 39-46 percent. This increased caloric density and free time in turn enabled more hours of labour, education, and stone-age innovation across our species. Homo erectus females grew to have a 64 percent larger body mass than earlier hominids, reducing infant mortality. Meat made us who we are.
Those uncomfortable with the killing currently necessary to participate in the food chain can look forward to lab cultivated meat. This cell-based replication of the nutrient profile of meat involves no livestock slaughter, allowing those who “love animals, love the planet, but also love bacon sandwiches” to continue eating guilt-free. Though presently power-intensive, the process will be more humane and less emissions intensive with a grid powered by nuclear and renewables.
As Robert Nozick once said of all utopian ambitions: There is no one-size-fits-all solution for a society accommodating everyone’s diverse needs and desires. Micromanaging agriculture for quantity rather than taste, variety, or nutritional density may lead to more mouths fed. However, the plan may encounter biodiversity, socio-economic, and consumer choice challenges. Our diets, therefore, must not be mandated according to emissions targets.
GMO technologies, vertical farming, and meat eating all have their place in the future of sustainable, carbon conscious dining. We must not allow activist vegans to imperialise our plates. Veg consumption is not a virtue, nor a catch-all for climate action. Only the innovation and efficiency arising to facilitate free choice should govern what fills our farms and bellies.
Connor Tomlinson is the Head of Research for the British Conservation Alliance and a political commentator for Young Voices UK. He appears regularly in American Spectator and on talkRadio. Follow him on Twitter: @Con_Tomlinson