With growing interest in a meat-free lifestyle, Russell Jones explores the benefits of cutting down on this carbon-intensive food supply.

In case you were blissfully unaware, January has been renamed ‘Veganuary’ and everyone is being encouraged to give up meat for the month.

Even if this passed you by, what you might have caught in the news though was the introduction of a vegan sausage roll by High Street bakers Greggs, which certainly caused a bit of a social media storm, not least in the strong reaction to the tweet from Piers Morgan where he said: “Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns.”

Despite his best efforts at rubbishing the idea of veganism, Piers Morgan has inadvertently helped broadcast the vegan message to a much bigger audience and will undoubtedly get more people thinking about giving it a try.

A vegetarian diet has about half the carbon footprint of a meat-eater’s diet

Russell Jones Russell Jones Content and Communications Manager

Collectively we can make a difference

Whilst my eldest daughter has now been vegan for almost two years, I personally enjoy meat so the idea of giving it up completely may well be a step too far.

People choose to reject meat for many reasons such as animal compassion and the intense farming methods that my daughter objects to. 

Whatever your views though, the production of meat is very carbon intensive so a non-meat diet will help save on emissions.

If everyone switched just one meal a week to a non-meat option, this would make a big difference to the nation’s carbon footprint.

This is certainly the approach that I’m going to take. Who knows, I might even get a taste for going ‘meat-free’.

Lighting LED the way

Just how much impact we can collectively make with our own individual choices is fast becoming apparent when you look at simple things such as the switch to LED lighting.

Writing recently on the BBC website, environment analyst Roger Harrabin says that while "installing a single low-energy LED bulb may make a trivial contribution … if millions choose LEDs, then with a twist of the collective wrist, their efforts will have made a significant dent in the UK's energy demand.”

Harrabin points out that whilst renewable technologies always seem to grab the carbon reduction headlines, new analysis of government figures from environmental website Carbon Brief, shows that EU product standards on light bulbs, fridges, vacuum cleaners and other appliances have played a substantial part in reducing energy demand.

Using less energy

The calculations also show that UK electricity generation peaked around 2005, with generation per person now back down to the level of the 1984 (around 5 megawatt hours per capita).

As we see more overall electricity production moving away from coal towards renewables, the report says that this has helped reduce fossil fuel energy by the equivalent of 95 terawatt hours (TWh) between 2005 and now.

In 2018 renewables supplied a record 33% share of UK electricity generation and this is likely to increase further this year.

At the same time though, we need more of a focus on the positive contribution that focusing on efficiency can play, with the Carbon Brief report saying that “energy efficiency has contributed to cutting energy demand by 103 TWh.”

The added benefit of focusing on the energy efficiency of the equipment we all use is that better use of energy can lead to lower fuel bills as well.

Carnivorous backlash

Apparently 2019 has already been dubbed the ‘Year of the Vegan’ and more restaurants and supermarkets are launching meat-free products to tap into this growing market.

But as food writer and chef Tom Hunt said recently on Channel 4 News, there is a darker side to the issue with some receiving hate mail and death threats.

The vitriol comes from elements on both sides of the argument though as the reaction to Piers Morgan’s tweet demonstrates.

Putting aside the extremists though, where does that leave the rest of us?

The facts speak for themselves

According to the GreenEatz website, a food’s carbon footprint is the “greenhouse gas emissions produced by growing, rearing, farming, processing, transporting, storing, cooking and disposing of the food you eat.”

The production of lamb is recorded as the most carbon intensive food stuff generating 39.2 kilos of CO2 equivalent (or 91 miles by car), with beef second on 27 kilos (63 miles by car).

In comparison, the lowest food stuff are lentils with 0.9 kilos, with potatoes, rice, nuts, vegetables and beans all recording less than 3 kilos of CO2 equivalent (under 7 miles by car).

And if you think this means bland food, then you couldn’t be more wrong.

Last night for example, I had a fantastic meat-free Indian meal which left me both fully nourished and completely satisfied … and yes, I avoided alcohol as well, although I am not planning to take part in ‘dry January’ – sorry liver!

Meating our emissions targets

Greeneatz also reports that each US household produces 48 tons of greenhouse gases, with food producing around 8 tons of emissions per household, or about 17% of the total.

Whilst the UK still generally has a different diet to the US, we are starting to mirror them in many ways, not least the growth of fast-food and the lack of cooking skills in the nation. 

The website also reports that “British and American households throw out a third of the food that they buy!” meaning we waste money on waste.

Few people also seem to have time to cook these days, so the increase in ready-made vegan meals and takeaways can only make things easier for the masses, which in turn, will help more people choose to go meat-free.

And if you needed any further ‘food for thought’ on the matter, it’s worth considering the following facts which came from the 2009 World Bank and IFC’s report ‘Livestock and Climate Change’:

• Livestock breathing makes up about 14% of greenhouse gases

• A quarter of land worldwide is used for livestock grazing

• 70% of the deforestation of the Amazon is to provide land for cattle ranches.

• A third of farm land is used to grow food for animals

• Nearly 40% of methane gas emissions comes from farm animals

• Methane is 70 times worse than carbon dioxide in global warming impact

Final thoughts

What is crystal clear, whatever your views of eating meat, is that animal farming is a significant factor in global warming.

Reducing your meat intake will therefore make a real difference to your carbon footprint.

Who knows, it may also help you save money and improve your health.

In the meantime, I quite fancy a mushroom risotto tonight. How about you?

Russell Jones is content and communications manager and curator of The Hub