I have been struck by the short queues at plant-based food stalls compared with the long, snaking lines for the fish, meat and dairy options. Plant-based food consumes much less of the planet’s resources and seems to have countless other benefits. So, what’s the beef with plant-based food?
Over the past two years I have learnt about the vast and intricate network of factors that contribute to our collapsing world. It still amazes me that the milk from a latte makes it ten times worse for the climate than a cup of black coffee. Joining the dots between diets and pandemics is one of the reasons why I chose to change what I eat. I knew the carbon emissions from meat were high, but learning about the following issues with meat and dairy really affected me.
There are two ways for pandemics to come from livestock farming: (i) antibiotic resistance; and (ii) mutated viral transmission between species.
Globally, 73% of medically important antibiotics are fed to animals and this gives more opportunity for bacteria to adapt, dodge antibiotic protection, and create another pandemic. By 2050, drug-resistant microbes will lead to ten million deaths every year if the problem is not solved. For context, the 2020 death toll from Covid-19 was over around 3 million. Limiting meat intake worldwide to 40 g/day could reduce global consumption of antimicrobials by livestock by 66% – a huge reduction – and consuming a plant-based diet reduces this to zero.
The cramped conditions and cross-over with wildlife from industrial farming and wildlife farming is also giving disease more opportunity to adapt to jump across species. When wildlife interacts with farmed animals, such as migrating birds flying into chicken sheds, there are many opportunities for a virus to mutate and jump between species. There are lots of chickens – they make up 71% of all bird biomass on Earth – so bird flu viruses are waiting in the wings.
While meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories globally, they use the vast majority – 83% – of farmland. A typical UK meat and dairy consumer requires 10,000 m2 of land (1.5 football pitches) per year, and a plant-based diet can reduce this to 2000 m2 (3 penalty boxes). A plant-based diet would take pressure off tearing down the world’s tropical forests and bring our planet’s ecology back towards a healthy equilibrium.
80% of the world’s soya crop is fed to livestock, and 51% of soya crops are sprayed with ‘highly hazardous pesticides’ such as glyphosate. Cocktails of pesticides have been shown to kill 96% of exposed pollinators, which is a huge problem. Losing pollinators would be devastating to food production, and already we see people having to pollinate some crops by hand because of the decimation of insects. We would consume around thirty times more crops through a cow than if we ate the crops directly, and this vast amount of crops needed to feed animals requires high yields and therefore high pesticide use. Plant-based diets reduce the need for such a high yield, and therefore can be grown more organically. By eating organic, locally grown plant-based foods, this environmental and ecological damage is reduced.
A green ooze of algae is produced when nitrogen and phosphorus from cattle farm run-off and chicken manure flow into rivers and coastlines, which starve the water of oxygen and kill other life. A plant-based diet can reduce this by 49%. To achieve the high yields needed to feed livestock, fertilisers are used excessively. These also contribute to eutrophication.
Water and Methane
A pint of milk requires around 350 litres of water (over a bathtub). Water is a resource that will run out if we extract it from the ground faster than it can be replaced and this is a significant issue in water-stressed regions. As the globe heats up, glaciers shrink and rainfall patterns change, meaning fresh water becomes scarce. Reducing water consumption is important. A diet with a 50% reduction in animal products would reduce total water use by 37%. Atmospheric methane reached a record high in Sept 2021 at 1900 ppb, compared to 1638 ppb (1983) and 722 ppb (1750), where 30% of current anthropogenic methane is from livestock.
Water is a significant issue in growing certain nuts, too (almonds require around 3 gallons of water per nut), and they are typically grown in areas where water is scarce. Rice requires a lot of water from typically water-stressed regions, and it produces a lot more methane than, say, UK-grown potatoes. But let’s keep this in perspective: cattle produces 100kg of CO2e per kg, whereas rice produces 4.5kg. Californian cattle requires 1.5 times more water than Californian almonds. For this reason, I wouldn’t replace my cow’s milk with almond milk, but as oats can grow in the UK and use 13 times less water than cow’s milk.
Stone-cold statistics like these might convince some people, but not everyone. Let’s look at some common concerns about adopting a plant-based diet.
We were taught food pyramids or wheels at school, where meat and dairy are ‘required’ to be healthy. But now numerous studies have shown that plant-based diets provide all the nutrients required for a healthy diet. It does require some more thought at first, as simply cutting out meat and dairy will leave you lacking certain things. Vitamins, such as B12, are a common supplement in a plant-based diet; I get my B12 from fortified oat milk and Marmite. All the proteins you can get from beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, or legumes, can have a carbon footprint 50 times lower than from a beef burger. These foods contain plenty of iron too, as does spinach and broccoli (this is non-heme iron, and 90% of our body’s iron). The WHO have classified processed meats as Class 1 carcinogens, the same group as smoking, contributing to bowel and stomach cancers. Overconsumption of antibiotics has led to resistance bacteria such as MRSA.
It can be true that organically grown plant-based foods are more expensive than cheap meats. But this is partly due to the UK government allowing meat and dairy to be sold at 0% VAT. Plant-based foods are sold with VAT, making them 20% more expensive. Meat and dairy are therefore artificially cheap. Billions of pounds of public money is spent to subsidise meat and dairy, when it could be spent to make organic plant-based foods cheaper instead. Let’s campaign for this.
Farmers would lose their jobs
There are more than 11,000 dairy farmers and 23,600 beef and lamb producers in the UK. Reducing demand for meat and dairy would put these farmers out of business, surely? Not if they are offered grants from the government to change their farms into more sustainable and environmentally friendly ecosystems. A UK scheme is currently in place, but it currently pays the largest landowners disproportionately highly, meaning smaller farmers don’t benefit enough to rewild their land. A fairer scheme would be expensive, but a lot cheaper than continually and unsustainably repairing the country from the horrors of climate change and ecological collapse. Farmers need to be paid fairly to allow nature to flourish and to reduce their emissions.
Freedom of choice
Everyone wants to make their own choices. This is what makes us human and what makes us happy. The last thing people want is to be told what they can eat. I made the choice to stop eating meat and dairy after I learnt about the disastrous effects it has on our crumbling environment and the inhumane conditions that animals suffer. It was not an easy decision to watch footage of the inside of abattoirs or dairy farms, but it was all a part of my education. I was still free to make my choice, but my choice changed when I learnt more about the topic.
Meat and dairy taste nice
I love the taste of bacon, burgers, milkshakes, omelettes, and steaks. But knowing the true cost of these foods was important to me in making my decision on whether I ate them or not. I also found that I could cook ‘tastier’ food with spices and techniques that I had never learnt before. Online videos have helped me to learn a new skill. I love cooking now. My parents bought me a plant-based cookery course for Christmas!
Overall, I wanted to contribute this article to share the issues around meat and dairy that made an enormous impact on me. Adopting a plant-based diet has made me happier and healthier, and it’s one of the most impactful actions I have been able to take in tackling the climate and ecological emergency. Today, the average UK citizen eats 20% less meat than in 2008, and this is an encouraging trajectory. My parents said after their first plant-based Christmas ‘this food tastes so good that I don’t see the point of eating meat anymore’. It has been a positive journey for all of us.