Mary Robinson suggested that eating vegetables instead of meat might be good for the planet
At a One Young World Summit in Ottawa in September 2016, Mary Robinson gave a speech about overconsumption and, as a part of her urging that we all consume less of everything, she mentioned, almost in passing, that “We need each of us to think about our carbon footprint. Eat less meat, or no meat at all. Become vegetarian or vegan.” Here was a concrete example of something we all might do to lessen consumption and greenhouse gases (GHGs).
It was hardly a call to arms against meat, but it hit a raw nerve with the farming lobby. They accused her of “facile sensationalism” and that her comment could lead to teenage girls having dietary problems – not sure where this last point came from or where it was going. And, of course, they trotted out the old, by now widely discredited, notion that Irish farmers add more cows so they can feed the starving people of the undeveloped world with Irish beef, cheese, and milk, all in the name of proteins. The real market for such products is the affluent EU market and the growing middle classes in quickly developing countries, such as China, not those dying of hunger.
Poor people with inadequate access to sufficient food do of course need proteins but proteins can be delivered through vegetables instead of meat at a cheaper cost, with fewer GHGs, and with a healthier diet. Moreover poor people cannot afford Irish beef, cheese, or milk.
The farm lobby also raised the tired cliché that jobs will be lost if people eat more veggies and less meat. To be more accurate, jobs would be lost in the beef farming industry and jobs would be gained for those farmers who switch to vegetables. A related critique is the conflating of farming and rural Ireland, so an attack on farming is seen as an attack on rural life in the west of Ireland. But the agriculture sector is increasingly dominated by large industrial farming operations, at the expense of the small rural farmers in the west of Ireland.
Finally, the farm lobby took a swipe at Robinson by crying out: who is she who flies around the world giving speeches to be lecturing them about saving GHGs. Robinson’s Foundation for Climate Justice replied calmly that she monitors her air miles and pays for an offset of GHGs through green investments. The lobby surely knows, from their frequent flights to Brussels, that most airlines make it easy for fliers to sign up for carbon offsets equivalent to their miles flown.
As a nice touch to counter the farm lobby criticism, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sent Robinson an edible bouquet of blossoms of aubergines, peppers and radishes. Let it be clear that Robinson was not addressing any issue regarding the treatment of animals in her speech.
While Robinson’s comment was directed at eating less meat and more veggies in order to save the planet, switching from meat to veggies is also critical to saving our own personal planets, our health.
A global switch to diets that rely less on meat and more on fruit and vegetables could save up to 8 million lives by 2050 and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion (US), as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds. Oxford Martin School. In addition, meat and dairy production uses 70% of global freshwater consumption, and 38% of total land use, and water and land are becoming more precious resources.
As the United Nations has urged, a shift to a diet that does not depend on animal products, especially meat and dairy products, would be the most helpful way to reduce hunger, fuel poverty, and climate change impacts. Even in the developed world, cutting in half the current consumption of meat and dairy in the EU would achieve major health benefits as well as reductions of around 40% in agricultural nitrogen emissions, and 25% to 40% in greenhouse gas emissions.
Closer to home, Paul Cullen points out that Ireland is one of the fattest nations on the continent, the Irish eat more meat and less fruit and vegetables than most other countries, and we also have some of the highest rates of cancer, including those cancers linked to an unhealthy diet.
Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority, found in a recent study that the majority of Irish famers accept that GHG emissions contribute to global warming but they are not so sure that farming has any responsibility for this warming, and they are not willing to accept increased production costs to reduce GHGs.
The Irish Independent, which covers farming issues as well as anyone, recently published an editorial pointing out that Teagasc studies support Robinson’s comments, and suggesting that farmers are not going to be able to hide from the issue of climate change.
Switching to less meat and more veggies will not be easy. Recently, Google tried to set up a meatless Monday in their company café, and a group of employees set up a barbecue just outside of the café.
Hey, nobody said it would be as easy as eating pie or a piece of cake. At least Robinson’s remarks have set off a conversation about meat and farming and climate change that needs to be carried on, and listened to by the Irish government, and agriculture sector.
Mary Robinson speech at One Young World Summit in Ottawa. There is no apparent link to this speech.
Plant-based diets could save millions of lives and dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, Oxford Martin School of University of Cambridge www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/news/201603_Plant_based_diets
On study by Marco Springmann, H. Charles J. Godfray, Mike Rayner and Peter Scarborough, “Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United states of America www.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146.abstract
“Limit Your Meat, Dairy and Eggs: Nitrogen Emissions and Food Choices,” in Reports section of irish environment (1 March 2016). www.irishenvironment.com/reports/forget-meat-dairy-eggs-nitrogen-emissions-food-choices/
On a recent report, Nitrogen on the Table: The influence of food choices on nitrogen emissions and the European environment, of the European Nitrogen Assessment prepared by an international group of researchers, led by PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.
“Climate Smart Agriculture: If Only. Reports from IIEA/RDS, and from Environmental Pillar/Stop Climate Chaos,” in Reports section of irish environment magazine (1 Sept 2016). www.irishenvironment.com/reports/climate-smart-agriculture-reports-iieards-environmental-pillarstop-climate-chaos/
The conversation about Irish farming has been fundamentally changed and no one can now claim more money for Irish farm production is only so the poor of the world can be fed.
ieBLOG, “The wonders of language where fossil fuel companies fight “energy poverty” and Irish farmers fight global hunger with beef and cheese,” irish environment (1 August 2015).
Paul Cullen, “We need to stop romanticising Ireland’s agri-food industry,” The Irish Times (11 Oct 2016). www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/we-need-to-stop-romanticising-ireland-s-agri-food-industry-1.2823634
Eilish O’Regan, “Red meat top source of gas emissions in our diet,” Irish Independent (24 Oct 2016). www.independent.ie/irish-news/health/red-meat-top-source-of-gas-emissions-in-our-diet-35155449.html
Editorial, “We can’t hide from the issue of climate change,” Irish Independent (24 Oct 2016). www.independent.ie/opinion/editorial/we-cant-hide-from-the-issue-of-climate-change-35155390.html
Ucilia Wang, “How Google is using big data to protect the environment,” The Guardian (12 Oct 2016). www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/oct/12/google-environmental-sustainability-data-kate-brandt
Editorial UPDATE: 07 Nov 2016
Damian Carrington, “Tax meat and dairy to cut emissions and save lives, study urges” The Guardian (07 Nov 2016). New study shows that surcharges of 40% on beef and 20% on milk would compensate for climate damage and deter people from consuming as much unhealthy food. www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/07/tax-meat-and-dairy-to-cut-emissions-and-save-lives-study-urges