Should I Eat Meat?

It may not be the most reliable and unbiased source of information around, but I have been following Dr Michael Mosley’s Should I Eat Meat with interest nevertheless. It will have reached a lot of people, so I took notes.

After episode 1, Michael changed his line of questioning from “should I eat meat?” to “what should I be eating if I want to be a more eco-friendly carnivore?” Not quite the same line of enquiry.

It’s a problem, because everything that was discussed in episode 2 was premised on the idea that eating meat is necessary for human health and even survival. If this were true, I might have some sympathy for those whose efforts are focused on producing more meat at less environmental cost (such as the featured Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation – although we haven’t factored the animals into our ethical equation yet).

But it clearly isn’t true. Episode 1 failed to provide any evidence that eating meat was beneficial to health. They featured a prominent dietician claiming that meat is a good source of protein, iron etc., but as far as evidence is concerned the most they were able to produce was the EPIC study that showed no significant difference in all-cause mortality for red meat (after correction for measurement error) or poultry consumption, but a significant adverse effect for “processed” meats.

On the other hand there is ample evidence that human beings consuming a predominantly plant-based diet have better health outcomes and live longer. Even if there wasn’t, the fact that people have traditionally consumed diets very low in meat all around the world throughout human history, and survived (and even thrived), suggests that meat is at best unnecessary for human health (at worst it is actively harmful).

According to the programme, in China in the 1960’s annual meat consumption per person was just 4kg (about 11g/day). Today with increasing affluence it has risen to 55kg, a total increase of 70 billion kg/year. This is still less than the 80kg/person/year in the UK, or the 120kg/person/year in the US, but all across the developing world demand for meat is rising.

Annual global meat consumption currently sits at 65 billion animals per year (Michael is right that the scale is staggering), and this is set to double if current trends continue. We currently consume 300 million cows, 1.4 billion pigs, 1 billion sheep and goats, 5 million horses, 2 million camels, 3.5 billion ducks and turkeys and 60 billion chickens around the world every year. That’s an average of 9 animals per person per year. We already devote one third of the earth’s land surface area to meat production, either directly as land for grazing, or indirectly by growing crops (that could be fed to people) to feed animals. And that’s 70% more land than 100 years ago: 70% more land that is no longer a natural habitat for wildlife (it’s not only the Amazonian rainforests that are being lost).

Current levels of growth are clearly unsustainable. This at least is something everyone is agreed on, such as Dr Tara Garnett from the University of Oxford’s Future of Food programme. The entire world’s population simply cannot consume meat at American levels without ruining the planet. Everyone needs to eat less, not more: half as much, according to Michael, whose rather watered-down conclusion is that “you can have your steak and eat it too – just not very much.

It’s not a very brave position statement – more political than scientific – but at least it’s moving in the right direction. If you take a closer look at the detail of what has been said however, you will find that Michael has indirectly answered his original question somewhat differently by the end of episode 2.

The dictionary definition of the word should is “obligation, duty or correctness; a desirable or expected state”. No, then, we should not eat meat. We do not need it (we are not biologically obliged to consume it), and it is harmful to the environment, resulting in habitat loss and excessive waste production. It is also a major contributor to global warming due to methane gas production by cattle and also the carbon footprint of transporting feed, animals and meat around the world.

From this perspective of lack of need, the fact that chicken has a lower carbon footprint than beef (4.4kg of CO2 per kg of chicken meat, cf. 16kg for beef) seems slightly irrelevant. The ethical conclusion is the same. If we have a duty to protect our collective health and the health of the planet, then the desirable and correct thing to do based on current evidence is to go plant-based: vegan, or vegetarian at the very least.



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