Commentary: Think twice when considering banning beef
Eating meat is fast becoming as repellent as smoking to many green campaigners but reducing meat won’t make the dent in climate change we need, says Bjorn Lomborg.
30 Nov 2018
COPENHAGEN: Christiana Figueres, the former United Nations official responsible for the 2015 Paris climate agreement, has a startling vision for restaurants of the future: Anyone who wants a steak should be banished.
“How about restaurants in 10 to 15 years start treating carnivores the same way that smokers are treated?” Figueres suggested during a recent conference. “If they want to eat meat, they can do it outside the restaurant.”
EATING MEAT IS REPELLENT
In case you have missed this development: Eating meat is fast becoming as repellent as smoking to many green campaigners. It is behaviour to be discouraged or even banned.
That’s because your hamburger is being blamed for climate change. Meat production – especially raising cattle – emits methane and requires carbon-dioxide-intensive inputs. In the breathless language of recent reporting, a “huge reduction in meat-eating is essential” to avoid “climate breakdown".
I have been a vegetarian my entire adult life because I don’t want to kill animals, so I can empathise with the interest in promoting less meat in our diets.
But I want to make sure the science is right. When you look beyond the headlines, those arguing for banishing meat-eaters from restaurants and calling on everyone to change their diets are often cherry-picking the data while ignoring basic facts.
Reading the popular press on this topic, you find plenty of articles suggesting that eliminating meat consumption could cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 50 per cent or more. That’s massive. It’s also massively misleading.
Importantly, the 50 per cent reduction in emissions is achieved by going a lot further than vegetarianism. It requires going completely vegan, which means stopping eating and using any animal products: Milk, eggs, honey, meat, poultry, seafood, fur, leather, wool, gelatin, and much else. This is not going to be a mainstream dietary and lifestyle regime any time soon.
Still, the media suggest that going vegetarian can achieve a reduction of 20 to 35 per cent in an individual’s personal emissions. But these are not a person’s entire emissions – they are those emitted just from food.
Four-fifths of emissions are ignored, which means the impact is actually five times lower.
If we turn to the academic literature on emission cuts from going vegetarian, a systematic survey of peer-reviewed studies shows that a non-meat diet will likely reduce an individual’s emissions by the equivalent of 540kg of CO2.
For the average person in the industrialised world, that means cutting emissions by just 4.3 per cent.
But this still overstates the effect, because it ignores an age-old and well-described economic phenomenon known as the “rebound effect".
Vegetarian diets are slightly cheaper, and saved money will be spent on other goods and services that cause additional greenhouse-gas emissions.
In the United States, vegetarians save about 7 per cent, and in the United Kingdom 15 per cent of their food budgets. A Swedish study shows a vegetarian diet is 10 per cent cheaper, freeing up about 2 per cent of an individual’s total budget.
That extra spending will cause more CO2 emissions, which the study concludes will cancel out half the saved emissions from going vegetarian.
In a developed-country setting, the reality is that going entirely vegetarian for the rest of your life means reducing your emissions by about 2 per cent.
This is a well-established result, but it still surprises many people who believe that becoming vegetarian should achieve more.
Indeed, when I first highlighted these figures, two British researchers attacked my approach and even claimed that I must be “cherry-picking.”
But the figure is the best estimate of a meta-study, not the result of choosing a single study with the highest or lowest impact.
In contrast, to bolster their counter-argument that vegetarianism has a much higher impact, the academics chose to rely on only two studies that just happened to have two of the highest estimates. Then they disregarded the one showing a lower effect and rounded up the figure given by the other.
They even ignored the rebound effect, which halves the real-world impact, although the literature clearly says “when evaluating the environmental consequences of vegetarianism the rebound effect of the savings should be taken into account".
Of course, fiddling with numbers to fit our preconceptions doesn’t fool the planet. The fact is, instead of going completely vegetarian for the rest of your life, you could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by the exact same amount by spending US$6 a year using the European emissions trading system – while eating anything you want.
An emissions cut of a couple of percentage points is nothing to sneer at, but it is certainly not what will “save the planet".
The inconvenient truth is that few individual actions can transform the battle against climate change.
One action that could make a genuine difference is campaigning for far more spending on global investment in green-energy research and development. This technology needs to be massively developed if we are ever to bring forward the day when alternatives can outcompete fossil fuels.
More research and development also is needed to reduce the carbon impact of farming, as well as to develop and produce at scale artificial meat, which could cut greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 96 per cent, relative to conventionally produced meat.
Like much campaigning, Figueres’s plan for meat-eaters is disturbing, because it suggests that the former UN climate chief is focused on banning behaviour she doesn’t like, based on flimsy evidence and over-the-top newspaper reporting.
It also suggests a narrow focus on the world’s rich. It is incredibly self-obsessed to talk about banishing steak eaters from restaurants when 1.45 billion people are vegetarian through poverty, wanting desperately to be able to afford meat.
As a vegetarian for ethical reasons, I will be the first to say that there are many good reasons to eat less meat. Sadly, making a huge difference to the climate isn’t one of them.
Bjorn Lomborg is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School.
[The article below lists some of the many reasons to go vegetarian.]
Commentary: Add more plants, and less meat to your meals. Here’s why
Most people think of eating as a binary choice – you either go vegan or vegetarian or not at all, but this cannot be further from the truth, say two observers.
Plant-based foods can be delicious too
By George Jacobs
By Peter Lewis
SINGAPORE: In recent years, more people have been adding more plants to their plate. And the growing awareness of the role of animal agriculture (using animals for meat, eggs and dairy) as a leading driver of global warming is part of the reason.
Animal agriculture, as Good Food Institute Director Bruce Friedrich points out in his TED talk, is incredibly inefficient: Even the most efficient animal, chickens, requires nine calories of feed to produce just one calorie of meat.
Using animals to produce food is a form of food waste. Those who believe in this cause may have cut their meat intake in a move to tackle the food wastage problem.
The treatment of animals constitutes another reason some people are increasing their consumption of plant foods. Thanks to the Internet, the closed doors of the meat, dairy, and egg production facilities have opened to expose the suffering of the animals trapped in this system.
As important as environment and animal welfare issues are, health may be the primary motivation driving this shift towards plant-based foods.
Research demonstrates how eating plants can boost our health by raising antioxidant levels, lowering weight and cholesterol, and reducing risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and dementia.
Celebrities and athletes endorsing and experimenting with plant-based foods also makes it a trendy choice, especially among young people.
Whatever the reason, it’s encouraging to see people around the world taking steps on this path to healthier living and a greener planet. But more should consider changing to a more plant-based and less meat diet, as it could also help them fulfil their roles as responsible citizens of the world.
MORE PLANTS ON OUR PLATES TO SLOW CLIMATE CHANGE
Most people think of plant-based eating as strictly a binary choice. Either you are an all-in vegan and never touch any foods from animals, or you eat meat, eggs and dairy in every meal.
In reality, people’s diet choices range along a wide continuum. For example, “welfarists” look for food from animals whose lives are at least slightly better than those of their peers on factory farms; for instance, welfarists might eat cage-free chicken eggs.
Further along the continuum are “reducetarians” who are committed to eat less meat, eggs, and dairy in every meal. For instance at an Economy Rice stall, they may choose two vegetables and one meat or egg, instead of one vegetable, one meat and one egg. They may even go plant-based one day a week.
“Flexitarian” represents another stop along the diet continuum. This group usually eats plant-based meals, but not always. For instance, every Sunday, they take some of their grandfather’s famous oyster porridge.
Regardless of where one is in the continuum of animal-based food consumption, just the act of reducing meat contributes to the changes we need to slow climate change.
Flexitarian diets offer perhaps the best current destination for many people’s food journey. A recent study published in the journal Nature explained that people shifting to a flexitarian diet could hold climate change below 2 degrees Celsius by halving greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.
[The previous article challenges such a claim:
"... the 50 per cent reduction in emissions is achieved by going a lot further than vegetarianism. It requires going completely vegan, which means stopping eating and using any animal products: Milk, eggs, honey, meat, poultry, seafood, fur, leather, wool, gelatin, and much else."The question is how much emission is from livestock as a total of all greenhouse gas emission? If animal farming contributes 30%, than halving it will bring it down to 15%. And this is NOT going to hold climate change to 2 degrees.]
MAKING SINGAPORE FLEXITARIAN-FRIENDLY
What can be done to make Singapore an easier place to be flexitarian? Protein is one of people’s big concerns. Fortunately, there has been an explosion of innovation within the alternative protein space.
In addition to new products made from plants and fungi, food scientists are now even growing meat from cells rather than entire animals, and have already succeeded in producing the first “clean meat”, or lab-grown burgers.
In Singapore, food manufacturing incubator, Innovate360, provides start-ups with the training, facilities, and support to bring more sustainable products to market. This comes on the heels of National University of Singapore’s recent launchof a new S$110 million dollar laboratory to develop plant-based versions of satay and other favourite foods.
[Chilli chilli crab anyone? Crab made from chillies.]
These efforts to develop alternatives to animal-based foods will provide more plant-based food options for Singaporeans.
Obtaining our food without the involvement of animals also avoids possible contamination and bacteria from animals’ bodily processes, such as excretion, that can cause health problems. This means that lab-grown meat is cleaner than meat from slaughtered animals.
While some meat alternatives are currently offered at premium prices, as the technology matures and production scales, prices should fall to match those of traditionally grown animal foods.
Additionally, many plant-based foods are very reasonably priced. There is already a wide range of these affordable, easy to find plant-based options in Singapore. Local fruits and vegetables, tofu, tempeh, and other legume based foods, such as peanuts, and grains, such as oats and brown rice, are all examples of these foods.
EVEN MORE DELICIOUS PLANT FOODS ARE COMING
To help Singaporeans eat less meat, Singapore Health Promotion Board's (HPB) use of subsidies to promote healthier eating can be further extended.
Many still fall short of HPB’s recommendation of two daily servings each of fruits and vegetables. According to the National Nutrition Survey, which was last done in 2010, only one in four adult Singapore residents met the Dietary Guidelines.
Increasing subsidies at the wholesale or retail levels could support HPB’s efforts to boost consumption of these vital foods. In other words, people need carrots to eat more carrots.
As a country that prides itself on our discerning palate and vibrant food culture, Singapore is a place where boosting the availability of tasty plant-based options takes on special significance.
Fortunately, HPB provides a model for innovation, in the form of a previous initiative which trained chefs in hawker centres and restaurants to prepare healthier foods, such as cooking with less oil. A part of this capacity-building programme was a certification scheme that helped consumers identify stalls with healthier, yet tasty, options.
A similar approach merits consideration for expanding the plant-based foods space: A concerted training programme that helps chefs across Singapore expand their menus’ selection of delicious plant-based dishes that taste better and remain faithful to our culinary traditions.
The global rise of fast food and food delivery is testament to just how much consumers value convenience, and if plant-based foods are to compete with other options in Singapore, they need to be just as convenient as their animal-based alternatives.
To help Singaporeans quickly and easily sink their teeth into delicious and healthy options, a certification scheme could be paired with a culinary programme, heightening the visibility of eateries which take pride in serving sustainable and healthy food.
Portugal provides an example of government action to make life easier for those who choose to go vegan by making it compulsory for schools and hospitals to provide plant-based options.
In Ghent, Belgium, plant-based eating is especially encouraged every Thursday, and free vegetarian and vegan cooking workshops are provided for students, teachers and parents.
IMPROVING HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT
The suggestions outlined above are ambitious, no doubt, but the payoffs from promoting flexitarian or less meat diet are equally appetising.
An up to a whopping US$31 trillion dollars by 2050 was the savings estimated by Oxford University researchers in terms of improved health and environmental protection of a global shift towards plant-based diets.
After all, each life is precious, and each healthier person means a happier person with a happier family. Change seldom feels easy, but putting more plants on our plate just feels right.
It’s entirely possible that promoting flexitarian options here would have effects far beyond Singapore’s borders. We have the infrastructure, talent and drive to pioneer models of the future of food that could play a crucial role in leading others towards a greener and healthier tomorrow.
Dr George Jacobs is long-time president of the Vegetarian Society in Singapore. Peter Lewis is a recent graduate of Yale-NUS College and now works with Karana, a plant-based foods start-up.
Watch this video about how Vegans are ruining the world:
The video should not be accepted uncritically.
Some of the points are avoidable - like almonds, cashews, avocados, soy beans, and quinoa. Oh wait. That's 5 points out of ten - half of the 10 ways.
I guess we can avoid SOME of the problematic food, But likely any vegans will be consuming one or more of the problem food.
As for the other points, I am sure vegans will be able to rebut them (or put up a decent rebuttal).
I guess, my point is, it's not so simple. And extreme solutions will have extreme consequences.]