Why do environmentalists disagree about food?

A blustery scene of fields and sea

Disagreement rages over food and farming

Clearer thinking can help us steer a path towards sustainability.

Careful thinking might just bring us together.

Environmentalists disagree. Especially about food sustainability. Why? This situation is often confusing and hinders us on our path towards a greener agricultural future.

Uncovering some mistakes in climate logic, I hope, will help us on that path. The food sustainability debate needs sound science, but also robust reasoning to accompany it.

Mistake 1: Only a small percentage

Our overreliance on livestock has come under pressure as the scientific literature documents livestock’s large contributions to climate change. The United Nations has concluded that livestock accounts for at least 14.5 percent of total global green house emissions.

In response, many people think, “well, livestock’s contribution is still a relatively small percentage of our total greenhouse gas emissions, so does it really matter that much?” One instance of this reasoning is a recent piece by the Sustainable Food Trust.

We cannot reason that because a given source of emissions is far from the majority of total emissions, we can be lax about it.

We must make emissions cuts wherever we possibly can. That is the only way to reach the spectacular emissions reductions outlined by the United Nations. These targets include achieving net zero emissions in around thirty-one years. The UN says we need “deep emissions reductions” in each and every sector, including agriculture.

Mistake 2: China is worse

Some people say that since China is a bigger polluter, we in the UK shouldn’t be too concerned to cut its emissions by much. As such, they think, our industries have a get out of jail free card. And they think that we shouldn’t be concerned about our own meat consumption, when global meat consumption trends are on the rise because of patterns of eating in China, India, and elsewhere.

The underlying principle of this approach is: the countries that pollute the most should take the first move, and if they don’t, nor should we.

This is a great way of moving the planet closer to the precipice. Even if bigger polluters should get greener and aren’t, their wrong does not justify others in acting similarly. We tend to apply a similar principle elsewhere: if others avoid tax, we do not think we can then fiddle our books in order to get a slice of the tax-avoidance fun.

Careful thinking might just bring us together.

Mistake 3: Food waste is what we put in the bin

One third of food is destined to nestle against a bin liner or rot on the ground. This is well worth taking about, and I commend the food waste campaigners who are working to change this.

But such campaigners make a mistake in their unjustifiably narrow definition of food waste. They define food waste as food thrown in a bin. That might seem fair enough, but let us consider why we think food waste is bad.

If food is wasted, the emissions that were created in producing it were needless. Alternatively, the food could have helped those in need (usually indirectly). Food waste is bad, then, because it represents a missed opportunity which would have seen resources put to better use to help others.

If we are concerned by food thrown in the bin, we should also be concerned by a hidden form of waste: food fed to livestock. We feed a huge amount of edible grains, soya, oats, and peas to farm animals, in order to get food from those animals (though not all livestock are fed crops).

The problem is that evidence suggests only 12 in every 100 calories fed to livestock are converted into meat, eggs, or dairy, on average. The other 88 percent is used by the animal’s body for other purposes, e.g. movement. That 88 percent usually represents waste, then, because we lose this food in feeding it to livestock. We could eat the crops directly and recover those calories. This problem is significant. Greenpeace reports that a staggering 63 percent of EU cropland is used to grow crops to feed farm animals.

Yet I don’t see food waste campaigns doing much to encourage us towards plant-based foods. These foods bypass livestock, cutting waste at the farm level.

Mistake 4: White meat is sustainable

Because of the sky-high greenhouse gas emission associated with red meat, many environmentalists conclude that eating white meat is environmentally a good thing.

The underlying principle assumed here is: if it considerably better for the climate than the worst option, it is good.

This is false. White meat tends to be far worse than alternatives such as beans and other legumes, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions but also food security, deforestation, and other forms of pollution. This is because poultry production is completely reliant on feeding animals (often imported) crops; chickens can’t eat grass.

That white meat is less bad in greenhouse gas terms than the worst food does not serve to render it sustainable, especially given the scale of the problems we face.

A journey

The world needs a greener food system. We are all on a journey together towards this. I hope people of different persuasions can coalesce around a way forward. And that careful thinking might bring us together.

This Author 

William Gildea is a campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society. Readers of The Ecologist are offered 10 percent off tickets for the Grow Green Conference, at the British Library on 11th April, where researchers, farmers, and policymakers will debate sustainable agriculture. Simply use the code GROW10.

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