Category Archives: Food

Meat and climate change: an interview with Chatham House’s Laura Wellesley

Meat and climate change: an interview with Chatham House’s Laura Wellesley
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
18 February 2016

In an interesting and important detour from its usual focus on international conflict and diplomacy, in 2014 Chatham House – the Royal Institute of International Affairs – established a research project on Diet and Climate Change. Working with the Glasgow University Media Group, the project aims to “review public understanding and behaviour in relation to meat and dairy consumption and its impact on greenhouse gas emissions.”

With the research finding “public awareness of the link between diet and climate change is very low”, I interviewed Laura Wellesley, a Research Associate in the Energy, Environment and Resources department at Chatham House and project leader, in an attempt to get the research results out to a wider audience.

Ian Sinclair: What is the relationship between meat and dairy consumption and climate change?

Laura Wellesley: Our appetite for meat and dairy products is a key driver of climate change. Globally, the livestock sector contributes 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions – that’s the same as exhaust fumes from every car, truck, plane, train and boat on the planet.

IS: How, exactly, does meat and dairy consumption contribute to climate change?

LW: Greenhouse gases are emitted from every point along the meat and dairy supply chains. Methane and nitrous oxide, two of the most potent greenhouse gases, are released by the animals themselves, from their manure and from the fertilizers used to grow their feed, combining with CO2 emissions emitted when land is cleared for crop production and grazing, and from machinery used to house, feed, slaughter, process and transport animals and animal products.

IS: You argue that a significant reduction in meat consumption would be a “win-win”. What do you mean by this?

LW: Global meat consumption has already reached unsustainable levels and is expected to increase by 76% by 2050. That means that, even with ambitious mitigation to lower the emissions intensity of livestock production the world over, emissions from the sector will continue to rise, eating up a huge slice of the remaining carbon budget. The upshot is that, without a significant reduction in global meat-eating, keeping global warming below two degrees will be nearly impossible.

But a global shift to healthy, sustainable levels of meat consumption would also be a ‘win’ for global public health. Meat consumption in most industrialised countries has reached excessive levels: across the EU, the average person currently eats around twice as much as is deemed healthy; in the US, it’s three times this amount. And the emerging economies are fast catching up.

Overconsumption of meat products – particularly red and processed meat – is contributing to a rise in obesity numbers and in the incidence of non-communicable diseases like type-2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Encouraging a reduction in meat consumption amongst those populations who are currently over-consuming meat would help to tackle the growing social and economic costs of diet-related diseases.

IS: You argue that one reason meat remains off the policy agenda is because the government fears a backlash from the voting public. What has your research discovered about public opinion and possibilities for reducing our meat consumption?

LW: Our research showed a considerable awareness gap around the links between diet and climate change. While familiar with the notion of GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions from transport and heavy industry, focus group participants in Brazil, China, the UK and the US were largely unaware of the way in which our consumption patterns contribute to climate change. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, findings from our multinational opinion survey and focus groups showed that concerns over environmental sustainability are far less important in influencing people’s food choices than more immediate factors like health concerns, taste and price.

But what our research also suggests is that the public’s disengagement with the diet-climate relationship is not the result of active resistance. Instead, it’s the product of a lack of awareness that has been sustained through government inaction. And findings from the focus group discussions point to a public that expects governments to intervene on their behalf, that is unlikely to stage sustained resistance to policy interventions, and that looks to governments to spearhead change where it is needed.

Encouraging a reduction in meat-eating will not be easy. But these findings indicate that, were governments to signal the urgent need for change and to initiate a public debate around the need for dietary change, the public’s disengagement would likely dissipate.

IS: What practical steps do you think governments should be taking to produce a reduction in our meat and dairy consumption?

LW: There’s no one silver bullet: a comprehensive package of policies and strategies will be needed if diets are to change at the scale needed.

Awareness-raising will be an important first step, but it won’t be enough. Governments will need to work with industry, civil society and the media to implement ‘nudge’ tactics in retail environments, and to make it cheaper, easier and more appealing to eat more plant-based foods. Including sustainability standards in public procurement guidelines and changing the default option in school and hospital canteens will be important pieces of the puzzle, but governments will also need to consider more interventionist measures like a carbon tax on animal products if we are to realize change at the scale required.

These strategies will work best when implemented by a range of actors – governments, industry, civil society groups, public figures – working together to promote a common message. But the bottom line is that governments need to initiate a conversation around unsustainable meat consumption – at the national level, but also through international platforms – and overcome the taboo associated with policy interventions on diets. If we are to avoid dangerous climate change, we cannot afford to continue on the current path of inaction.

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Breaking the silence: Meat and climate change

Breaking the silence: Meat and climate change
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2014

It’s an unusual departure for a think-tank used to discussing regional conflict and international diplomacy but Chatham House’s new report on livestock farming and climate change is hugely important.

The research paper notes that the consumption of meat and dairy produce is a major driver of climate change. With the global livestock industry producing more carbon emissions than all planes, trains, automobiles and ships combined “curbing the world’s appetite for meat is essential to avoid devastating climate change”, The Guardian summarised.

The study comes on the back of a plethora of recent research and expert testimony linking meat-eating, especially beef, with the on-going climate crisis, including the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Nature science journal and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at Manchester University. “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases”, explained Lord Stern, the author of the seminal Stern Report on climate change, in 2009. “It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”

Taking Stern’s advice and moving towards a vegetarian or, better still, a vegan diet, is what might be called a win-win-win situation – as well as helping the climate it would improve human health and mean less animals are slaughtered with all the horror this brings. “Diets high in animal products are associated with an increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and several forms of cancer”, notes Chatham House. Since 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund has recommended that people do not eat any processed meat because of the link with a number of cancers.

Quoting a recent review of the academic literature, Chatham House goes on to explain that mostly plant-based diets with little processed foods are “decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention”. For example, research from Loma Linda University in California tracking 73,000 thousand people for almost six years found vegetarians tended to live longer than meat-eaters and were less likely to get heart disease. Compiling data from 18 academic papers, the Nature journal article also notes that relative to conventional omnivorous diets, a vegetarian diet was linked to a 20 percent reduction in heart disease, as well as a 41 percent reduction in Type 2 diabetes.

Considering all this evidence, governments have had very little to say about the issue. Chatham House argues they may be concerned about the public backlash that might come from attempts to interfere in people’s diets and home lives. Frustratingly, the green movement has also been relatively quiet about linking diet and climate change, with little attempt to promote vegetarianism or veganism as viable responses. “I think they focussed grouped it and it’s a political loser”, the US food journalist Michael Pollan, speaking in the new documentary Cowspiracy, says about environmental NGOs. “They’re membership organisations… they are looking to maximise the number of people making contributions and if they get identified as being anti-meat or challenging people on their everyday habits, something that is so dear to people, it will hurt with their fundraising.” Corporate power is also a powerful block on radical change. In a 2010 lecture Samuel Jutzi, Director of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), warned: “I have now been 20 years in a multilateral organisation which tries to develop guidance and codes for good agricultural practice, but the real, true issues are not being addressed by the political process because of the influence of lobbyists, of the true powerful entities”. Speaking about the publication of the major 2006 FAO report on livestock’s responsibility for nearly one-third of global emissions, he told the audience “You wouldn’t believe how much we were attacked”.

While governments and the green movement have been acquiescing there has been a large increase in global meat consumption – especially in countries such as China and Brazil. But we shouldn’t be downhearted. Change is possible, with studies showing many people in the West have been reducing their consumption of meat, and red meat specifically, for both health and environmental reasons. Indeed, food is the one issue that we get to vote on every day. Three times a day, in fact.

With the IPCC recently warning climate change is set to inflict “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” unless emissions are cut rapidly and sharply, it is imperative that we start talking about food right now. Because if you care about the wellbeing of the planet and everyone and everything on it then you need to ask whether your diet is part of the solution, or part of the problem.

Can in-vitro meat save the world?

Can in-vitro meat save the world?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 September 2013

“£200,000 test-tube burger marks milestone in future meat-eating”, proclaimed The Guardian. “Could in-vitro meat save the world?”, asked Bioedge, a website dedicated to bioethical issues. The answer could well be yes, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who said “It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer.”

The August launch of lab-bred ‘meat’ in London was, according to Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University in London, “a masterly act of timing, theatre, and media management.”

“Considerable scepticism is required”, Lang warned.

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and author of 1975’s seminal Animal Liberation, clearly didn’t get the memo. Writing in the Guardian, Singer lauded the first public tasting of Dr Mark Post’s in-vitro beefburger as an “historic event” which, although he hadn’t eaten meat for 40 years, had convinced him to try in-vitro meat should it become commercially available. Singer’s decision was based on two reasons: To reduce animal suffering and to help the environment. “Using meat from animals, especially ruminants, is heating the planet and contributing to a future in which hundreds of millions of people become climate refugees”, Singer said. In contrast “In vitro meat won’t belch or fart methane. Nor will it defecate, and as a result, the vast cesspools that intensive farms require to handle manure will become unnecessary.”

Two inconvenient facts suggest Singer’s enthusiasm is pie-in-the-sky thinking. Firstly, production costs for the test tube beefburger are currently running at over £200,000 – funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, as it happens. This astronomical cost means it will likely take years to produce it on a commercially viable level – up to 20 years according to Post, a timeline the Associate Editor for environment and energy at Scientific American magazine calls “optimistic”.

The problem is we simply haven’t got 20 years to save the planet from climate catastrophe. Rather the New Economics Foundation stated in 2008 we had just 100 months to stop “runaway climate change.” Organisations as diverse as the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the International Energy Agency have all confirmed the prognosis is dire and requires immediate, radical action. So, to be clear, in terms of helping to combat climate change in-vitro meat will likely be of no help during the period when action is needed most – within the next five years.

Even worse than Singer’s support of a technological fix to what is an acute political problem for which solutions already exist, his salivating over beefburgers arguably perpetuates, rather than questions, our cultural obsession with meat. As one of my university lecturers, Professor Sarah Churchwell, once noted in a seminar “representation without criticism equals endorsement”. Apologies, Sarah, if I’ve misquoted you. By so publicly championing in-vitro meat Singer’s article reinforces the popular idea that meat, especially beef, is intrinsically desirable – a high-value luxury food that represents wealth and social advancement.

By buying into the dominant cultural-historic ideology that makes meat eating so attractive to so many, Singer’s PR-like article is arguably damaging in two ways: in terms of individual health and the relationship between meat and climate change – the very reason he says he supports in-vitro meat.

On the first point, Singer, and all of the coverage of in-vitro meat that I have seen, ignores the negative health impacts of eating red and processed meat. As Denis Campbell, the Guardian’s Health Correspondent, noted in March 2013 “The evidence implicating processed and/or red meat… in illness has been building up in recent years” with the World Cancer Research Fund recommending “shunning processed meat completely” since 2007. Campbell concluded his article making the startling claim that “Privately, some experts and health campaigners admit that only the fear of being seen as completely out of touch prevents them from agreeing publicly with the WCRF… they preach moderation, not abstinence, for pragmatic reasons.” As I argue above, even if in-vitro meat is able to be produced without the cancer-causing properties of red meat – and that’s an important if – its championing and production still reinforces the idea that meat is a desirable, high-value food – and thus does nothing to challenge the high-level of consumption of red and processed meat and its attendant negative health effects.

Secondly, as Singer mentioned in his article, meat-eating is a significant contributor to climate change. In 2006 the UN Food and Agricultural Organization named livestock as a “major player” in affecting climate change, estimating it generated 18 percent of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally. To reduce this impact experts such as Lord Nicholas Stern and the Chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Rajendra Pachauri recommend a reduction in meat consumption and dairy products – a vegan or nearly vegetarian diet, basically.

This reduction would also give us a good chance of meeting the nutrition requirements of the earth’s increasing population and be effective in addressing the looming water crisis. On the former, it is important to remember the well-known truism that there is already enough food to feed the world’s population. One in eight people around the globe does not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life because of many factors including war, natural disasters, poverty, agricultural infrastructure, environmental degradation and economics factors such as supply, access and affordability, not because they can’t buy a test-tube beefburger.

The Guardian’s coverage of the launch agreed “The best way to prevent this environmental damage… would be if everyone could be persuaded to eat less meat”. However, it went on to assert that “no one thinks that will happen – the desire to eat meat is ingrained deep in our evolution, according to Harvard University primatologist Prof Richard Wrangham.”

The Guardian’s conservative framing is both unrealistic and unhelpful. Because while it is unlikely that everyone will be persuaded to eat less meat anytime soon, studies show many people in the West have been reducing their consumption of meat and red meat specifically – for both health and environmental reasons. So it can be done. And again the question must be asked: Does the focus on in-vitro meat help or hinder the move to significantly reduce meat consumption and move to the vegetarian or vegan diet the world so desperately needs?

The media circus that surrounded the first public tasting of in-vitro meat clouds the fact it is, at best, irrelevant to combating the interconnected problems of climate change and the global food and water crises. At worst it is a red herring that makes it more difficult for us to see our problems clearly and act in an appropriate and timely manner. Like with GM foods, fracking and nuclear power we are being encouraged to look to and support a technological fix to a problem that we already have the technology to overcome. I’m not, I should note, against continuing research and development of in-vitro meat. One day it may well play a positive dietary role. What I am is sceptical of is a corporate-funded technology which makes big claims about saving the world when possible solutions already exist.

What is missing from the media hoopla, of course, is the kind of political analysis that understands fixing problems of this scale requires political will, otherwise known as popular pressure, and political solutions – a process that in-vitro meat will be largely irrelevant to.

Ricky Gervais and our confused and hypocritical relationship with animals

Ricky Gervais and our confused and hypocritical relationship with animals
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 May 2014

As a man who seems to take immense pride in his own rational and scientific view of the world, the comedian Ricky Gervais will no doubt be surprised to learn that he encapsulates our confused and hypocritical relationship with animals.

Let me explain. Speaking to the Guardian recently, Gervais said his cat was his most treasured possession and that “that one thing that really depresses me is animal cruelty.” This concurs with his many tweets on the subject and also an interview he did with GQ magazine: “I love animals. Growing up, the two things that made my blood boil were religious intolerance and animal cruelty. I’ve never understood it. I can’t stand to have an animal in pain. I’ve got to get it out of my head. It makes me angry, I want to cry, I want to stab someone.”

Like Gervais, we are, as the oft-repeated saying goes, a nation of animal lovers. And like Gervais, most of us eat meat. Now, call me old fashioned, but elementary logic suggests you can’t love animals and be a meat-eater at the same time. What with killing and eating them and everything. For example, if I was writing a list of things I wouldn’t do to someone or something I love I’m pretty sure the first thing on the list would be “not eating it or them.” I love my partner, for example. This means, among many other things, that I wouldn’t eat my partner. At best a meat-eater is someone who loves animals that are fortunate to be loved by a human being. Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys, pheasants, rabbits, goats, deer, horses – far from loving these animals, meat-eaters are one of their main enemies.

Claiming to be an animal lover while eating animals is especially bizarre considering one doesn’t need to eat animals to live a healthy life. In fact the weight of scientific evidence suggests a vegan or vegetarian diet is healthier than a meat-rich diet. And it’s better for the planet too. Gervais and many other people claim to love animals. But what could be crueler than killing an animal and eating it when one doesn’t need to do so to live a healthy life?

This next bit will be even less popular, but I want to go one step further and ask whether keeping animals as pets, as Gervais does, is compataible with being an animal lover.

I’ll put aside the fact Gervais recently starred in an advert (he needed the money, you see) in which he encouraged people to buy Audi cars, even though the leading cause of early death for domesticated cats is road accidents. What I’m interested in is whether Gervais and the millions of other people who keep cats and dogs as pets really keep them with the animal’s best interests at heart.

Take the neutering of cats and dogs. This is an invasive and brutal operation which helps human society but seems to take away a fairly fundamental part of being an animal – procreation. How many dogs and cats try to neuter themselves before they are sent for the snip to the vet? Have you ever come home to find your puppy fumbling with one of your kitchen knives trying to sever its own bollocks? Or caught your kitten trying to dial the number of the local veterinary office on the cordless? People often put bells on their cats to stop them being successful hunters. Dogs are made to obey humans and are fed and exercised according to our timetable. Dogs and cats are often left in the house, sometimes in one room, often alone, while we go about our human business. As I mention above the RSPCA (aswell as anecdotal evidence) shows that the motor vehicle is a great danger to cats. Yet millions of people continue to keep cats in urban areas.

Clearly, then, pets are looked after and loved to the extent they fit in with our often busy human lives and all too human peccadillos. In short, human interest overrides animal wellbeing if the two clash. This is because we keep pets primarily for our own wellbeing, not for animals benefit. This is implicit in the first statement on the BBC Ethics webpages looking at keeping pets: “Keeping pets gives many people companionship and great happiness.”

To be clear, I’m not claiming the moral high ground. I’m not a vegan and have been known to get emotionally attached to domesticated animals. And I’m not making light of Gervais’s important work on animal welfare – I support all progressive activism, reformist or radical. However, I do think it’s important to think critically about a subject that is pretty much taboo today. With the environmental impact of keeping pets and eating meat so high perhaps the existential threat of runaway climate change means it is a good time to start a conversation about our mixed-up relationship with animals?

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
November 2013

The UK has a growing obesity problem. According to the annual Health Survey for England in 1980 6 per cent of men were obese – that is they had a Body Mass Index of over 30. By 1993 this had more than doubled to 13.2 per cent and by 2011 23.6 per cent of men were obese. The medical problems associated with obesity are well known – Type 2 Diabetes, Coronary Heart Disease, hypertension, respiratory problems, stroke and certain cancers. The Government’s 2007 landmark Foresight report estimates that by 2050 obesity and being overweight could cost the NHS £9.7 billion, with the wider cost to society estimated at £49.9 billion.

So who or what is to blame for the rise in obesity? “Ultimately it comes down to will”, argued Eastern Daily Press columnist Steve Downes recently. “What can society do to change people’s habits? Nothing, really.” You might expect the author of the best-selling memoir My Mad Fat Teenage Diary to have a wider lens of analysis. If so you’d be wrong. Writing in The Guardian last month Rae Earl noted people are often obese because of “deep-rooted psychological factors.” As adults, Earl concluded, “our weight is our personal responsibility.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on Downes and Earl – they are simply repeating popular arguments that blame obesity on the individual. As a 2010 article in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs explains “studies demonstrate repeatedly that judgments about obesity are linked to values of individualism, self-determination, political conservativism, and secular morality.”

There are many problems with focussing on individual behaviour when discussing obesity. First, a culture that points the finger at individuals can stigmatise, leading to bullying, discrimination and mental health problems such as depression. Research shows overweight patients sometimes delay visiting the doctor because of fear of embarrassment or judgment. Second, blaming personal choices does not help to explain obesity levels when one considers obesity has substantially increased since the 1970s and its prevalence differs considerably across national borders and social classes.

As the Foresight report notes “People in the UK today don’t have less willpower and are not more glutoness than previous generations.” And, I would add, British people are not lazier than many of their less obese European neighbours, and middle-class people do not take more personal responsibility than generally heavier working-class people. Discussing the Foresight report, the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government Sir David King notes “individuals have much less choice in the matter of their weight than they would assume”. This is especially true for the poorest members of society, who tend to have much less control and choice over how they live their lives. So rather than obesity being down to personal willpower the Foresight report explains society “has radically altered over the past five decades with major changes in work patterns, transport, food production and food sales.” These changes have resulted in what experts call an “obesogenic environment”, where the political and economic structures of society end up actually encouraging obesity among the population

Some of these societal shifts include: a huge increase in the availability and affordability of calorie-dense but nutrient-poor processed foods; an increase in private car use and a corresponding decrease in the level of cycling and walking; the selling off of school playing fields; a lax planning system that has led to out-of-town supermarkets and fast food outlets being placed close to schools; healthy food ‘deserts’ in poor areas. In addition there has been a massive increase in the level of food advertising. With the UK having the dubious distinction of being the advertising capital of Europe, Food Analyst Cindy van Rijswick notes “the impact of promotions, advertising and marketing from the processed food industry is higher than in other countries.”

Arguably, many of these causes can be traced back to the neoliberal turn the country took with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the pro-business and individualistic rhetoric and policies that followed. In a letter to The Guardian earlier this year, the Secretary of The Equality Trust explained that research “shows more people are obese in more unequal countries”. And sure enough the US, UK and Australia – arguably the three Western nations where the grip of neoliberal thinking is strongest – have some of the highest levels of obesity in the Western world.

If an individualistic analysis can’t explain the rise in obesity, it’s unlikely to be useful in solving the problem either. In fact personalising the problem makes solving the crisis harder, according to Dr Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University: “As long as we have this belief that obese people are lazy and lacking in discipline, it will be hard to get support for policies that change the environment, which are likely to have a much larger impact than trying to change individuals”.

So if the rise in obesity is due to a wholesale transformation of society, then the solutions will also have to be on the same scale – led by strong government action. Radically changing the transport system so it discourages private car use and builds infrastructure to encourage cycling and walking would be a first step. The planning system needs to be altered so it encourages health living, rather than working to maximise profits for the food industry. Advertising of unhealthy foods, especially to children, needs to be highly regulated as it is in Sweden where TV advertising aimed at children under 12 has been banned since 1991. And taxes could be levelled on unhealthy foods, as Mexico is about to do.

All this, of course, would require the Government to take on corporate power. However, Professor Tim Lang and Dr Geof Rayner from the Centre for Food Policy at City University point out “there is a powerful temptation in Government to limit actions to a choice-based, personalization approach, in part because this style of intervention is aligned to the commercial sector’s own customer management and marketing methods.”

Indeed corporate influence on Government policy is so great that in 2010 The Guardian made the eye-popping revelation that “The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald’s and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity.”

“Either you have democracy or you have private power – you can’t have both”, wrote Robert Newman in his 2003 novel The Fountain At The Centre Of The World. I’d like to amend Newman’s wise words in terms of obesity: Either you have a healthy population or you have private power – you can’t have both.