Are our eyes too big for our stomachs?

Our ability to meet the challenge of global warming is under threat from an ever-growing appetite for protein. [25 December 2007 | Peter Boyer]

Motor vehicles, aircraft, power stations – we all know about these bogey-men of climate change that pollute the atmosphere and cause temperatures to rise. But there’s another less talked-about element in the mix.

“Non-energy” activities, mainly to do with land use, account for a third of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Most of this comes from livestock production.

Livestock and crops are our main sources of sustenance. And despite growing populations in recent times, people in most parts of the world have continued to be adequately fed. For this we can thank improved farming techniques and some clever technology.

But before we take our next bite in this festive season, we might like to pause and ponder some questions about the future.
Firstly, we’re destined to lose much of our agricultural land over coming decades.

Warmer, drier conditions will mean less food produced in large parts of Africa, the Middle East and around the Mediterranean, eastern and southern Asia, South America, the United States… and Australia.

Secondly, our agricultural activities are reducing biodiversity, disrupting natural processes such as the nitrogen cycle – and in some cases using more energy to produce food than we gain from the food itself.

The third question to consider is about the kind of food we eat. Meat, a central part of most western diets, is increasingly popular in developing countries such as China and Brazil.

We benefit from a certain amount of animal protein. But a recent paper in the British medical journal The Lancet says that we now eat much more meat than is good for us – and for the planet.

The paper points out that feeding people animal protein requires much more farmland than is needed for a diet of plant protein. This and the growing world demand for meat is causing vast areas of tropical forest to be cleared for livestock or livestock feed crops.

The animals themselves are a problem too. Cattle, sheep and goats are ruminants – animals with multi-chambered stomachs. This causes them to emit an exceptionally large amount of methane, a major greenhouse gas.

From our own perspective, a lower meat intake would lower our risk of suffering intestinal cancers and heart disease. As a long-time meat-eater I do find this a trifle hard to swallow.

But yoghurt-eating vegetarians shouldn’t be too smug. Dairy animals produce methane too, and demand a lot of land. And they need water in large quantities.

As my friend Margaret from Sustainable Living Tasmania tells her climate change groups, there are no free lunches.

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