Population growth is the ‘elephant in the room’ that everybody is already talking about, rendering the phrase pretty meaningless! I’ve long intuitively felt – even if I haven’t spent much time reading and assembling evidence – that consumption, not population growth is the more important issue*.
George Monbiot’s column in the Guardian this week is convincing on this point. Even if you remain unconvinced about the relative impacts of population and consumption, it’s difficult to come away from it thinking livestock is not a huge, huge issue.
We rarely eat meat. At home it’s a once a month treat, if that. When visiting friends or family or eating out we’re more likely to eat meat, but these are rare occasions and some of our closest friends are vegan, so gatherings of friends tend to be a meat free affair for us nowadays. I’d like to smugly say that this can all be put down to environmental concern. In part it can, but to be honest cost and taste has more to do with it. Good meat worth eating is not cheap and nor should it be. Since switching to a mostly vegetarian diet we eat healthier, more imaginative meals and can spread our food budget out more evenly rather than blowing most of it on meat.
Increasingly I would like what little meat we do eat to come from low impact conservation grazing herds or carefully culled wild animals – deer, boar, rabbit etc. Perhaps George Monbiot would prefer to leave the deer herds to lynx and wolves to control, but I reckon livestock farming and some form of wildlife management have a place in the British countryside for the foreseeable future. Indeed small scale livestock operations are an essential part of many productive small farms, though George would be right to point out we wouldn’t actually need to farm as much of the landscape as we currently do if we all switched our protein intake entirely from meat to plant based.
This philosophy is far from perfectly applied in my life but I have to try: I just can’t see how factory farming and a meat rich diet can possibly fit in with my other views on conservation and the environment. And for those to whom nature conservation is not a big issue, there’s a powerful moral argument to make about the human costs of meat. As more of the world’s productive farmland is turned over to rearing livestock to satiate rich people’s (that’s us) appetite for meat, more of the world’s poor will find themselves short of food. Is your daily bacon sandwich or McDonald’s lunch really worth somebody else’s life?
*Even as I would suggest that limits to population growth springing from improved access to contraception and sensible, informed reproductive choices will make a useful contribution.