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  • Giving up meat (or not)

    by Rumbold
    28th October, 2009 at 2:10 pm    

    Lord Stern of Brentford has called for people to stop eating meat (or at least significantly reduce their consumption, it’s not clear), as:

    Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.

    Leaving aside the jokes about noted vegetarians, is this a good idea, and what does it say about the debate on climate change?

    I have no problem with people who don’t eat meat. Indeed, some of my best friends are vegetarians. If people want to give up meat, whether on environmental, taste or ethical grounds, then they should. A vegetarian diet is better for the planet.

    Yet Lord Stern’s words highlight one of the thorniest problems surrounding the debate over climate change: the refusal to argue for pricing externalities properly. The impact of humanity of climate change (however great that impact is) can be reduced by two means. Advances in technology and a change in behaviour. It is right that governments and companies continue to invest in technological research, but given the current ineffectiveness of other sources of power (except nuclear), a change in people’s behaviour is also necessary in order to reduce carbon emissions.

    So how is this change to be effected? There are three possible, and not necessarily contradictory, methods. Firstly, the law. By banning certain devices/process, rationing, or giving companies/individuals legally-binding environmental targets, you can reduce carbon emissions. While not without merit, using the law too much would be draconian and could quite easily make the situation worse.

    The second way is to change people’s mentalities. So people fly less, don’t use cars and other motorised vehicles as much, eat less meat, use less energy and so on because they want to. This is problematic because how do you get people to change their mind in sufficient numbers in order to have an impact? It is not helped by the fact that some governments and high-profile activists are amongst the worst emitters around (or were, in some cases). People don’t respond well to hypocrisy.

    That leaves the proper pricing of externalities. An externality is an economic term for the impact of an event or process on somebody not directly involved in it. Externalities can be negative (a factory dumping waste into a river which ruins the river), or positive (walking past a baker’s in the morning and smelling warm bread). Carbon emissions are a negative externality, as they contribute to climate change (as far as we can tell). Therefore they should be taxed in proportion to the damage that they do. This would lead to a reduction in carbon emissions, as people would have more incentive to emit less.

    Sadly, few people are prepared to argue for this. One of the most effective ways to price emissions is to tax oil and gas use (note: not companies) more heavily. This could be done without actual hardship for the vast majority of people, but it would make running TVs, computers, boiling kettles, and so forth more expensive. Anyone who calls for higher energy prices though is swiftly attacked from all sides.

    Given the current ineffectiveness of alternative power sources, policymakers have two real options. Either carry on as before, or make a clear and honest case for higher taxes on energy (which could then be offset by cuts in income tax and rises in the state pension). People’s lifestyles will suffer, but either you believe that carbon emissions need to be cut, or they don’t. If you believe the former, then energy prices need to rise. The same goes for meat prices.

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    22 Comments below   |  

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    1. pickles

      New blog post: Giving up meat (or not)

    2. Nicholas Stewart

      #PickledPolitics Giving up meat (or not)

    1. Reza — on 28th October, 2009 at 2:51 pm  

      “The impact of humanity of climate change (however great that impact is) can be reduced by two means. Advances in technology and a change in behaviour.”

      There is a third means. The elephant in the room that everyone chooses to ignore. Addressing human population growth that has been growing and is projected to continue growing by almost a billion people every decade.

    2. Kismet Hardy — on 28th October, 2009 at 3:45 pm  

      For humans to exist, the ones that can eat us have to be made extinct, kept in zoos or confined to jungles. The ones we can eat, or rather can’t should the vegetarians have their way, what the fuck would we do with them? Kill them, obviously, or they’d ruin our crops, spread disease like scavengers and take over the world. So pish flipping tosh.

    3. coruja — on 28th October, 2009 at 4:46 pm  

      If people genuinely cared for the welfare of the animals they consumed and/or governments legislated for this it would generally raise the price of meat and probably reduce consumption.

      If the governments removed agricultural subsidies even without concerning themselves with animal welfare cost of food, particularly meat would rise (as well as releasing billions in to the world economy) and consumption would decrease.

      @ Reza, where do you want to start the cull, in over populated poor counties breeding like files - but with individuals with negligible carbon footprints - or richer countries with individuals consuming a disproportinate amount of energy?

      Besides, who’s going to tell the billions in the developing world that the story they were sold, if they ‘opened up their markets’, of meat, cars and ‘modern lifestyles’ is not really going to work out for them anymore? What would they do? Oh no Reza, more immigration!

    4. Don — on 28th October, 2009 at 5:16 pm  


      There is talk of reintroducing wolves to Scotland, which I think is a great idea.

      But I suspect that if we were to stop or greatly reduce meat consumption we would do so gradually and simply breed fewer animals for slaughter. I don’t envisage vast flock of chickens being released into the wild.

      Of course, the better off would still have organic, free-range meat since it is the intensively ‘farmed’ and processed cheap meat which is really the issue here. So no more chicken nuggets but no shortage of grouse or pheasant, no more econo-burgers but the better off will still have certified Duchy sirloin.

      Yes, it would be better for the environment and our general health if we consumed a lot less meat and were more thoughtful about the meat we do eat, but a lot of people would struggle to cope without budget buys from Iceland.

      Personally I don’t hunt, though I have sometimes wondered what it must feel like to shoot a restaurant critic, but I used to fish quite a bit. Properly managed game could provide a fairly substantial source of meat. As I have mentioned before, I’m a big fan of venison. And why aren’t we eating grey squirrels? What does coypu taste like?

    5. Tom — on 28th October, 2009 at 6:46 pm  

      Reza, from what I remember of the IPCC projections, we need to reduce world per capita emissions to the equivilant of 2 tons of carbon dioxide by 2050, accounting for population growth over that time. If population growth was halted today, we’d need to reduce it to about 2.5 tons instead.

      Given that we in the UK average about 10 tons instead - most of Europe is similar, Australia and the US are closer to 20, and China is about 4.5 - the difference that curbing population growth would make is pretty tiny compared to the draconian measures required to effect it.

    6. A Councillor Writes — on 29th October, 2009 at 12:22 pm  

      One thing to remember is that not all land is suitable for raising crops, so some meat production (mainly of sheep) would still go on.

    7. Auntie Vera — on 30th October, 2009 at 9:36 am  

      One grim reality for even the most frugal houswives is the constant increase in retail prices.

      Even the homosexual butcher has put his meat up a couple of coppers.

    8. Auntie Vera — on 30th October, 2009 at 9:41 am  

      Don will need to travel a fair way to sink his fangs into the flesh of a tender young coypu.

      After decades of shilly-shallying, Qangocracy featherbedding and jobs-for-life, the MAFF finally Got Tough with Coypus and implemented a Final Solution to the Coypu Question in the Norfolk Broads.

      There are coypu splashing about in Conmtinental Europe and limitless numbers in Louisiana.

    9. Trofim — on 30th October, 2009 at 10:10 am  

      I don’t expect many PP readers listen to Farming Today. The other day a contributor forecast a quadrupling of food prices within 20 years. And with regard to meat, pigs are an excellent device for transforming waste food into high-quality protein. Anyone of a certain age will remember that the pig swill container used to be ubiquitous in kitchens and canteens, and should be again. It was only with the BSE that the government banned it, simply because somebody put a bit of infected meat from elsewhere into a swill bin. Every home should have one. As for animals being ecologically unsound, remember how the north american prairies were said to be black with bison, such were their numbers. Naught bison.

    10. Trofim — on 30th October, 2009 at 10:24 am  

      that is, naughty bison.

      But just as detrimental to the planet is the sourcing of foods far from where they are consumed. All those who are genuinely concerned about the environment should become predominantly locavores - people who get their food from within a limited locality. Stuff that has to be carted halfway round the world is a no-no. Like, for instance, most rice. But then it’ll probably be rationed anyway by 2030.

    11. cjcjc — on 30th October, 2009 at 10:42 am  

      And when there is a periodic failure of the local harvest…?
      I think you’ll be pleased there is a global trade in food then.

    12. Trofim — on 30th October, 2009 at 12:13 pm  

      Periodic failure of the local harvest:

      that’s why we store and preserve food, for a rainy (or not rainy) day. That’s why you keep a pig or chickens and grow your own vegetables. It’s no accident that allotments are more in demand than any time since the second world war. The writing is on the wall. Sure, imported substances are useful for some things, but you should never let yourself into a situation where you depend on them.

      I lived in the USSR for a year mostly on bread and potatoes, with dairy products, pork fat and tinned mackerel now and again, with the occasional egg or onion. When you’re hungry, food tastes good. Despite the warnings by the British embassy to take vitamin c tablets, I was in excellent health when I left, thanks to blackcurrant jam and rowanberry juice. I saw one orange in a year. No bananas, grapefruit, pineapple, mango, or anything else remotely as exotic. People in this country are food-fixated. You mustn’t forget Will Self’s immortal words: “Food is just shit waiting to happen”. When you are hungry a piece of cheese on toast is a feast.

    13. cjcjc — on 30th October, 2009 at 12:31 pm  

      Ah, the joys of communism.
      Anyway, don’t let me stop you from returning to subsistence farming.
      Though I’m not sure how many pigs and/or chickens central London can handle.
      Perhaps you favour a year-zero style return to the countryside?

      I think I’ll stick to Waitrose.

    14. Trofim — on 30th October, 2009 at 1:00 pm  

      I’m sure there’s loads of room for hens and pigs in London. I know somebody who’s been there. He says they’ve got trees there, and even earth in places.

      And look, this proves it:

    15. cjcjc — on 30th October, 2009 at 1:11 pm  

      2000 new veggie gardens - wow - that’ll feed the 8 million Londoners no problem

      good luck with your campaign to return us to the middle ages

    16. Don — on 30th October, 2009 at 1:19 pm  

      7500 golf courses in the country. Just sayin’.

    17. cjcjc — on 30th October, 2009 at 1:23 pm  

      Indeed - they must go.

      The decadent golf-playing bourgeoisie must be re-educated through agricultural labour.

    18. Don — on 30th October, 2009 at 1:32 pm  

      Finally, a policy we can all agree on.

    19. Refresh — on 30th October, 2009 at 1:38 pm  


      I am impressed. You resisted answering this from Coruja

      ‘@ Reza, where do you want to start the cull, in over populated poor counties breeding like files…..’

      Very impressed.

    20. Auntie Vera — on 30th October, 2009 at 2:39 pm  

      Peruvian natives bred, and still breed, guinea pigs as a food source. Romping about on the earthen floors of the Indians’ snug dwellings, they eat veggie scraps and are periodically culled [do the survivers ever wonder where Dad and Uncle Carlos suddenly went?] and there are Egyptians who eat pigeon squabs and there are rabbits which breed, well, like rabbits without too much difficulty and there are backyard poultry farmers with [silent] Muscovy ducks and a variety of other poultry and anyone near a vegetable market could easily find enough waste to feed five goats and a great herd of rabbits.

      Then there are miniature pigs and tilapia [VERY unfussy feeders] and …

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