Meat: A threat to our planet?

Having watched the BBC documentary recently on the topic of Meat production and the threat it poses to our planet. I thought a short assessment on the documentary would be appropriate.

Largely, this documentary focused on the US and South America. However, the overall message was applicable no matter where the location. The current form and sheer scale of meat production is unsustainable. This only increases when we factor in global population growth in all continents.


This is the documentary description:

Following on from 2018’s award-winning Drowning In Plastic, science and wildlife presenter Liz Bonnin is travelling around the world to investigate the impact that our hunger for meat is having on our planet’s environment.

Reports from the IPCC and the FAO revealed that the global livestock industry is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the running of all the world’s transport combined – and it’s polluting our air, land, and water. So just how bad is the problem, and what can we do about it?

Liz travels from Texan megafarms, where 50,000 cows belch out vast amounts of planet-warming methane, to giant pig farms producing colossal quantities of polluting manure. In the Amazon rainforest she discovers how beef farming is a leading cause of deforestation, and comes face to face with a baby harpy eagle – a species rapidly losing its habitat as cattle farmers cut down the forest. Feeding our planet’s livestock is also leading to huge biodiversity loss and, in South Africa, Liz discovers how this is affecting life in our oceans, helping to drive the African penguin towards extinction.

Liz also meets the scientists and entrepreneurs urgently looking for solutions. At a university in California, Liz puts her hand directly into the stomach of a cow – all in the name of reducing methane emissions. In North Carolina she meets an entrepreneur who’s using his manure to power local homes. And in San Francisco, she becomes one of the first people in the world to try a lab-made chicken nugget – a product that might reduce the environmental damage caused by meat production.

Liz finishes her journey on a small farm in Wales, where she meets a family who have shifted their relationship with meat by taking the bold step of slaughtering their own animals.

At the end of her journey, Liz starts to assess her own attitude to meat, and questions what we can all do to save our fragile planet.


Twitter lit up throughout the documentary with arguments for veganism, which in itself is not the solution. Changing the behaviour of millions or potentially billions of people is difficult at best. Many advocates of veganism, advocate total veganism which in itself is unsustainable.

As I have argued previously, what we need to promote globally is a balanced diet. The dangers of unintended consequences loom large promoting such a diet, for example the land mass to for a plant based diet may be significantly less but the consequences of a loss of biodiversity have not been adequately considered. Far better to promote incremental change and balance with regards to how people eat, rather then total change as it is simply impossible to foresee every consequence of any action.

In conclusion:
It is great to see that the media is finally broadcasting programmes that make the public aware of the environmental problems some of the food we consume can cause. However, this is just the beginning.

Moving forward:

What is needed by all though is more focus on the security of food. Whether it be crops or meat, overall the climate will force us to change our diet. This will create ‘food deserts’ in some areas of the world, where little or nothing can grow or be produced. Overall the BBC made a good start, but more focus on the benefits of genetic modification and the circular effects of food waste/losses in different regions of the world would be something to explore.

June 2019 Food Thinkers seminar

A food thinkers event will be taking place next month at City, University of London. I will be attending. Hope to meet some fellow food thinkers, policymakers and colleagues there. Details are below.

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What does viewing food as a system and resilience mean for the practice of coherent policy making?

With Bob Doherty (University of York and DEFRA)

Chaired by Professor Corinna Hawkes, Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London

Monday 24 June, 5.30pm – 7.00pm

The UK is facing the biggest overhaul of UK agrifood policy since the end of the Second World War. EU Exit, 25-year Environment plan, National Food Strategy and Agricultural bill signal the need for coherent policy development. It has become something of a truism in the burgeoning field of food studies to describe food as constituting a ‘system’. Yet this concept is invoked far more often than applied and there are still relatively few contributions that succeed in delineating an explicit conceptualisation of the food system. The contributions that have been made share an understanding that food needs to be studied holistically in order to capture the multiple activities, interactions and outcomes associated with its production, exchange, consumption and governance. The implications are also that the practice of policy making also needs to be conducted in a more holistic way.

In this context, the Chief Scientists office at the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have set-up a systems programme team to develop a framework to put systems thinking and sound evidence at the centre of the future policy formulation process. This task is easier said than done given the complexity of the food system and the various ways it intersects with other social, health and environmental systems.

At the same time, resilient thinking is now extensively used in policymaking and raises questions such as: what has led to the current state of the food system, what is the ‘desired state’? Who gets to define this? What and who create(s) the stresses and shocks on the food system?

In this Food Thinkers, Bob Doherty will discuss the implications of understanding food as a system and the concept of resilience for future coherent policy formulation. This will be followed by a panel discussing the implications for seeing food as part of the system for the practice of food policy.

Bob Doherty is Professor of Marketing and N8 Agrifood Chair at the University of York and leads a 4-year interdisciplinary research programme on food resilience titled ‘IKnowFood’ (Global Food Security fund). Bob is also the research theme leader for food in the York Environmental Sustainability Research Institute (YESI). In addition, he has recently been seconded into UK Government Department, DEFRA as a policy fellow to work on Food Systems policy development. Bob specializes in research on the management aspects of social enterprise hybrid organizations competing in the food industry. He is currently a trustee on the board of the Fairtrade Foundation. Prior to moving into academia Bob spent 5-years as the Head of Sales and Marketing at the Fairtrade pioneer Divine Chocolate Ltd.

This seminar is free to attend but tickets are allocated on a first come first served basis so please do register to secure your space. Please also feel free to forward this invitation on to colleagues.

If you have any questions about this event please email: foodpolicy@city.ac.uk

Monday 24 June 2019

5.30pm – 7.00pm

Lecture Theatre B200, University Building

City, University of London

Register with eventbrite here

Climate impacts on food security

Among the most significant impacts of climate change is the potential increase of food insecurity and malnutrition (WFP, 2019). Post-Harvest food losses (PHL) on the African continent are of increasing concern with a rapidly growing population, in Kenya and Ghana for example they comprise of an estimated 30-50% of production at various points in the value chain (Morris, 2018, p.5).

Thus, as the climate changes with increasing desertification, the pressures of feeding populations where food is already scares will increase exponentially. Only international awareness of the effect climate change has on food security can possibly provide the correct funding, network solutions and distribution of knowledge to assist those at the local (street-level) in reducing PHL’s.

Note:
The image above depicts how climate change shapes food insecurity across the world (Carbon Brief, 2015). The map shows that climate change will increase pressure on food supplies primarily in the global south. The map that is linked to is supposed to be interactive at the carbon brief website, however, a technical problem is preventing this at the moment.

The push to consume insects instead of traditional farmed meat

Is eating insects the real answer to solving food security as the economist suggests? Moving from meat to insect protein may make sense. However, I have long argued against this. A more recent guardian article puts plummeting insect numbers ‘as threatening collapse of nature‘.

For all the hype and push towards consuming insect bars and the like we need to look into this seriously.

What the planet needs most right now is balance and we should be exercising caution before advocating the altering human of diets significantly, this also rings true for the recent vegan trend.

A move from one extreme to another may cause unintended consequences.

Update 07/05/2019: Another argument against such a proposition is that of the human effect on biodiversity. A draft UN report reveals that up to one million species face extinction due to human influence. Surely rendering the argument that humans can switch to eating insect protein dead in the water.

According to the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the loss of pollinating insects and other ecological disasters – from the destruction of flood-saving mangroves to air pollution – poses no less of a threat than climate change (The Guardian, 2019).

The report will lend more weight to the argument that reducing the consumption of meat and dairy produce is the most viable solution, both in terms of reducing climate impacts and ecological damage. More news will be posted on these interesting developments soon.