I think everyone gets their back up a bit when they see or hear ill-informed and incorrect comments thrown around. This is why I am sick of hearing and seeing throw-away statements from people (who often should know better) about the supposed benefits to the globe of meat-free days, or a meat-free diet. This time, rather than just being annoyed, I decided I should put pen to paper.
Let me be clear – if you want to reduce or remove meat from your diet, that’s absolutely your choice. Just don’t kid yourself that it will benefit the planet. As for benefitting your health, unless you really do it properly (which many don’t), that’s unlikely too. But I’m not just going to make ill-informed, throw-away statements… I’m going to explain why…
First is the “save the planet” argument. There are a few different lines that this follows, but the most common ones currently are around emissions and use of land for livestock feed.
The emissions argument falls flat very quickly, especially when you compare it to the emissions required to replace protein from meat in a balanced non-meat diet.
The vast majority of the emissions produced from livestock production are biological methane. Biological methane only lasts for 10-12 years in the atmosphere, so does not contribute to warming if the level of livestock is stable or falling – as is the case in New Zealand. A simple analogy is if you have a room full of people when two people leave and are replaced with two more people, the room is no fuller than it was to start with. Replace the room with the atmosphere, and the people with methane particles, and you’ll see how this analogy applies. This is in direct contrast to carbon and nitrous oxide, which stay in the atmosphere forever and continue to build up.
Food produced from animals is extremely nutrient-dense. Replacing it with anything close to its equivalent in plant-based foods is much more emissions-intensive as much more of it is required to achieve the same nutritional outcomes.
Beyond emissions, two-thirds of the land used for livestock production worldwide cannot be used to grow crops, due to soil type, topography or water availability. Livestock takes land and products that often cannot be used for other purposes (including by-products of human food such as straw from wheat, barley and oats), and upcycle the nutrients available there into human edible food. If you remove the livestock, in many cases worldwide, you cannot then use that land or those by-products to produce other plant-based food for humans.
On the health argument, it is fair to say that many people (particularly in NZ) eat more meat than they need to, and actually probably more food generally. However throw-away comments that removing meat from, or reducing meat in your diet is good for your health, actually do a huge amount of harm.
The majority of us are lazy eaters and we will eat what is easy to lay our hands-on and prepare. When replacing meat in our diet with something else, most just reach for an easy alternative that tastes ok. Often these go nowhere near replacing the huge range of nutrients that animal products provide in a relatively small serving. This is especially so for younger people who can be very influenced by throw-away, “trendy” comments, and who also need those nutrients the most.
A recent UK study has shown that advice to reduce meat consumption there has directly correlated with increased prevalence of anaemia and other nutrient deficiencies in adolescent girls and women in their “reproductive years”. The flow-on effects of this will continue to play out.
I’m all for free choice and have no bug to bear with people who choose to remove meat and/or dairy from their diet. You do you, and I’ll do me! But if you’re aiming to do it for health, make sure you’re replace those key nutrients, and be careful how you influence others who may not know how to do that. And please, don’t kid yourself that you’re doing it for the planet.
Actually, if you want to think about your food consumption and its impact on the planet, you’d be far better off considering your food waste and food-related packaging. One-third of all the human food produced in the world is wasted. If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitting country in the world. Instead of Meat Free Mondays, how about No Waste Wednesdays? Now that would help the planet!
For more information on this topic please check out the resource, ‘The important role of New Zealand dairy and red meat in feeding a growing global population’, co-authored by Beef + Lamb New Zealand, DairyNZ and Federated Farmers of New Zealand.