Can we save the planet by not eating meat?

Ylenia Lemos

Fancy some tasty roast beef, rump steaks, sausages, appetising veal medallions, meatballs, mouth-watering hamburgers, delicious meat loafs, beef stews, juicy ribs, or some lovely meat pies? Forget it. Last month Lord Stern, British economist, academic and Chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate and The Environment at the LSE, declared that Britain should stop eating meat to limit climate change due to the water waste generated and greenhouse gases produced in meat production.

Leaving meat out of the diet will make a significant beneficial impact on the planet. All calculations so far have proven so. Studies by the European Commission and the Stern Report, among others, have shown that agriculture is one of the biggest single contributors to greenhouse gases. According to United Nations figures, meat production causes 18% of global carbon emissions. Cattle directly emit methane into the environment, which is 23 times as powerful as carbon dioxide.

Within the food budget, meat is absolutely the largest contributor to climate change, confirms Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy and programme leader for doctoral programme in Food Policy at City University, in London.  

Is the solution then to cut meat out of the diet completely? Lang suggests that it depends on how the meat is being produced.

“We definitely need to reduce it dramatically,” he says, “there is no way around it, unless we do all sorts of very different ways of running our animals.” Lang suggests that if we really want to eat meat, then the only one we should be eating is the one that comes from a hill where the cows are grass fed. He says we should not buy meat that comes from cows that are grain fed. This is because grain is used in land, and is therefore doubling the ecological impact, although not necessarily the greenhouse gas impact.


Lang used to be a beef farmer and has given up eating meat. The Vegetarian Society calculates that there are approximately 4 million vegetarians in the UK, representing some 7% of the population. The society also estimates that 41% of people in the UK are now including a lot less meat in their diet.

According to Lang, people who do not follow this diet in Britain and the rest of the world don’t realise the enormous footprint that animals have. “We are running a farming system to keep cows,” says Lang. In fact, there are approximately 1.4 billion cattle and 1.1 billion sheep worldwide according to Vegetarian Society figures.

Meat however, is known to be the richest source of iron, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Most importantly, it is the element from which iron is absorbed easiest by the body. Meat is also rich in protein and essential amino acids.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 8% of women (the sex most inclined to anaemia), in the UK suffer from iron deficiency. But according to Julia Alderman, an experienced nutritional therapist at The Nutrition Coach clinics in London, generally speaking, there would not be major implications for our health if we were to eliminate meat.   

Alderman says that a vegetarian diet can be really healthy if well balanced and high in protein. “The concern should be in acquiring enough iron,” she says. The main sources of iron, substituting meat, would have to be introduced into the diet to make sure the iron, protein and omega3 present in meat are still being taken. “The main substitutes would be green vegetables, spinach, broccoli, pulses, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, and fortified breakfast cereal,” says Alderman.

Although according to the FSA, unlike in meat, the iron in these foods is not so easily absorbed by the body. Nevertheless, the nutritionist reassures that it would not be necessary to take supplements as long as those food substitutes are taken.

For people who are used to eating meat regularly and are willing to significantly reduce the amount they consume or leave it out completely, Alderman suggests that the change should be gradual if it’s to be sustainable. This way people can adjust and make sure that they are having the healthy vegetarian alternatives.

However, farmers don’t see the necessity in reducing meat intake as they argue that more than 60% of British agricultural land is grassland, which, as Lang explains, plays a vital role in locking up the carbon dioxide. The farmers also point out that sheep and cattle farming play a vital role in both the rural and national economy.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) President Peter Kendall said: “Figures show that methane emissions from UK agriculture have fallen by 17% since 1990 and the sector only accounts for around 1% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions.” He argues that focusing on a single issue, such as the reduction of meat production, as a way of saving the planet, is irresponsible and could be counterproductive.

One school of thinking, Lang explains, suggests that if people want to eat meat, it should only be wild and free ranged. “But that is not where people get their meat,” he says. “Even people who think they are getting free range meat, it’s actually farmed; it’s not running up and down mountains.”

But how do you get a whole nation to stop eating meat or at least reduce the intake significantly? A spokesman for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) says there isn’t a policy where people can be encouraged to give up meat. He said: “there are health factors involved and we do encourage people to do other things domestically there are a bunch of things people can do to help climate change. There haven’t been enough studies by the government on cutting out meat so we don’t have plans yet.”

According to Lang, the government cannot be blamed for not warning people and insisting to start taking action to save the planet. “They are frightened to take a lead,” he says, “that’s why people like Lord Stern, who is a World Bank economist, for God’s sakes, and not some radical vegan, has seen the figures, looked at the facts and realised that we cannot afford to allow this to go on.”

London citizens do not seem to view the situation as fatally as Lang does. When a small sample of 80 meat eaters were asked three weeks ago if they were willing to remove meat from their diet to control climate change, 55% of them said they would reduce the amount they ate significantly but would not exclude it completely. Additionally, 27% said they would not change their diet at all, and 19% said they would be willing to give up meat completely.

The best thing to do would be for all of us to immediately start reducing the amount of meat we eat. Doing so would still have a substantial beneficial impact on the environment. Alderman suggests setting a definite amount of days a week in which not to have meat, for example, four days without and three with it and gradually reduce the quantity of meat or the number of meat-eating days. Moreover, we can be confident that the exclusion of meat will not impact our health negatively if we balance our diet and make sure we intake the same amount of nutrients from other sources.

The UK Climate Projections for this year from DEFRA say: “We are working for a strong global climate change agreement at the United Nations Conference in Copenhagen in December to move the world down to lower emissions pathways and correspondingly reduced impacts. However, even as we take action to avoid the worst effects of climate change later in the century, we will have to adapt to unavoidable warming.”

A government certainly can’t force people to stop eating meat. However, Lang strongly concludes that “climate change will force people, so get it in your head. Forcing is coming whether you like it or not. People get very threatened by it; everyone thinks ‘it’s my right to eat meat’. Really? It’s your right to damage the future for your children?”