A Vegan Point of View

Summary of Key Points

1.Food production is one of the top three causes of all ecological problems (1).  
2.Food alone uses 90% of the UK’s fair share of the earth’s resources (2). 
3.There are clear actions which can quickly slash our toll on the planet.

The environmental impact of food

Food has a heavy ‘eco-footprint’, in fact nearly one-third of the eco-impact of the typical Brit is from food.  The issues are complex, but there are clear and effective ‘Food Actions’ which Birmingham Friends of the Earth can promote to individuals, organisations and Government.

The average British diet uses roughly three times the land, water and energy of a balanced plant-based diet.  This is largely because farmed animals use most of the calories from their feed for their own life processes and so the plant protein is not converted to milk, meat and eggs.  Eating lower down the food chain avoids the waste involved in this poor conversion.

About 1.2 global hectares (gha) of our food footprint is animal based – due to meat, dairy products and eggs.  Producing plant-based foods such as beans, vegetables and bread takes about 0.5 gha per tonne.  Animal-based foods such as fish, beef and cheese use 10–15 gha per tonne (3). 

The world human population is expected to increase by 50%, to 9 billion by 2050. Then there will be only 1.2 bio-productive global hectares per person (down from 1.8 gha now).  The expanding global middle classes – for example in China – are rapidly increasing their consumption of meat and dairy products to match ours.   This is driving a farmed animal population explosion – numbers may double to 40 billion by 2050iv.

A plant-based diet has a carbon footprint at least one tonne lower than the typical British diet.  Ruminants such as cattle reared for meat and milk have a particularly large climate impact, as they ‘belch’ large quantities of the potent greenhouse gas, methane.   The animal farming industry worldwide causes roughly 18% of human climate change impact overall1.

Organic food can have significant environmental benefits.  However, organic animal farming requires very large areas of pasture.  If the UK shifts to organic livestock farming, there would have to be a large reduction in meat consumption.  This is because there is not enough land to produce the same amount of meat by organic methods.

The benefits of a food campaign for Birmingham Friends of the Earth

‘Food Actions’ can be very empowering for ordinary people.  We eat every day, and shop every week.  With clear advice, ordinary people can confidently cut their environmental damage with every meal and purchase. 

Many organisations are large food consumers.  Both commercial and public sector organisations can significantly reduce their eco-impact with good sustainable food policies. 

Local and national Government also have a significant role to play.  It is vital that the whole food chain, and all environmental aspects, are considered.   Food security and sustainable food production are currently on the political agenda, which makes a Friends of the Earth food campaign particularly timely.

Amanda Baker of The Vegan Society
media@vegansociety.com  www.vegansociety.com  Donald Watson Hse,  21 Hylton St, B18 6HJ


A Meat-eater’s Point of View

As a regular but discerning meat and dairy consumer, I welcome Friends of the Earth's decision to launch a campaign aimed at reducing the environmental impact of the livestock industry. What form might such a campaign take? First and foremost, I would suggest, it must be a campaign that meat eaters, not just vegetarians and vegans, can support.

It should avoid duplicating the work of animal welfare groups such as Compassion in World Farming, which earlier this year launched a new campaign and micro-site urging people to eat less meat. Nor should it simply promote vegetarianism and/or veganism. We already have organisations such as the Vegetarian and Vegan Societies to do this, and there is a fundamental difference between the agendas of these organisations and that of Friends of the Earth. The difference is that, for organisations like the Vegetarian Society, meat eating would still be anathema even if there were no greenhouse gas emissions associated with it.

A full-page advert by the Vegetarian Society in the latest issue of Earthmatters, Friends of the Earth's supporters’ magazine, states that 'the only genuine way to cut down on these harmful emissions [from farmed animals] is to stop eating meat'. Contrast this with our organisation's approach to other major sources of greenhouse-gas emissions: Friends of the Earth does not, for instance, insist that the only way to reduce emissions from electricity generation is to stop using electricity; or that the only way to reduce emissions from cars is to stop driving. Things just aren't that simple.

For sure, we may need to eat fewer livestock products, and, if farming is to survive, pay more for them. But this will require action at all stages of the supply chain, the supermarkets in particular, to ensure that the external costs of livestock products are properly reflected in the price we pay for them and that farmers receive a fair return for their efforts. A campaign aimed merely at trying to shame consumers into changing their lifestyles can only fail to do justice to a complex issue. 

James Botham

(1) UN FAO “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report 2006 http://www.virtualcentre.org/en/library/key_pub/longshad/A0701E00.htm 
(2)  Best Food Forward Eco-footprint of South West England http://www.steppingforward.org.uk/ef/keyfind.htm
(3) ‘Sustainable Food Consumption’, Collins A and Fairchild R (2007)
(4) The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.