Which diet is best for the planet?

Sensemaking / Which diet is best for the planet?

20 Apr 2011

Simon Fairlie, author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance?, and Jen Elford of The Vegetarian Society come head to head on dietary guidance

Which diet is best in the long-run?

SF: We need a diet with less meat than we eat at the moment in the West, and better access to healthy food in developing countries. A certain amount of meat comes environmentally free of charge as a by-product of the rest of the agricultural industry. We'd be crazy not to eat it.

JE: The most sustainable diet meets our basic nutritional requirements with the lowest possible environmental impact. So that points to grains, nuts and pulses as primary sources of protein, carbohydrates and healthy essential fats.

As people get richer, they eat more meat. Take India and China. Is it a problem?

SF: Of course we can't deny countries the right to develop. But we shouldn't encourage Western diets. Our meat intake is excessive: we need to reduce it by about half. China has a high meat consumption subsidised by cheap nitrogen fertilisers. This is questionable in sustainability terms.

JE: We don't need meat – it's just not necessary for human health. There is a growing trend to feed high quality protein from grain and pulses to livestock. But for the 900 million people around the world who are hungry, meat is simply unaffordable: access to grain is the problem.

What's the most sustainable way to produce protein?

SF: Waste food, particularly in the UK, should be fed to livestock. There's enough to feed all the cows we'd need for our milk supply. Any land not suitable for vegetables or grains should be used for animals. It's arguable that this land could be better used for biomass or forestry, but ruminants return nutrients to the land.

JE: Vegetarian sources of protein, like grains, pulses and nuts, have a much smaller carbon footprint than meat products – by about a factor of three. Pulses have huge agricultural benefits in that they fix nitrogen, like a fertiliser. Alternatives to soy, including the humble pea, are already playing a part in producing high protein, low fat food here in the UK.

What about dairy produce?

SF: I'd always advocate reducing the beef herd before dairy. Dairy is a more efficient way of delivering nutrients. There's a lot of grass in this country and it should be used for dairy production. Grass should be the primary feedstock, not grain. And organic practices need to move from niche to mainstream.

JE: Cows are fed high density feed to maximise milk production. Often it's soya, grown unsustainably. Retail prices for dairy produce are kept artificially low, so farmers depend on intensive high yields to make a living. Milk from goats and sheep can be managed more sustainably in upland settings.

How would you promote your preferred diet to an increasingly wealthy and culturally diverse population in the UK?

SF: Humanity on the whole is naturally greedy. But we know we're able to eat in a more measured fashion. There are plenty of celebrity chefs and farmers who are talking about this. I expect attitudes will shift as oil and food prices go up.

JE: Consumers need to be confronted with the facts at point of sale. Food labelling, where all the sustainability factors and nutritional data is presented in a simplified form, is a great idea. We're going to be looking for input across the board, especially from government and retailers.

Are subsidies a good thing?

SF: Not necessarily. The European Common Agricultural Programme (CAP) subsidies encourage wildlife-focused extensive agriculture which can lead to reduced yields. Lower yields can lead to the need for imports which means we're trashing other people's environments to save our own.

JE: Over the last 40 years, rising meat and dairy consumption has mirrored increasing subsidies to the livestock industry. We have deeply entrenched expectations that meat can be cheap. But these don't take into account the environmental costs. Organic meat production attempts to address this issue, but with limited market success.

Debate convened by Claire Wyatt.

This article is taken from the Green Futures Special Edition Tomorrow's food, tomorrow's farms.

Image credits: EasyBuy4u / istock

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