Questions and Answers About Meat and the Environment

Climate and environment blog

It is sensitive to discuss the food we eat. And most sensitive of all is talking meat. Here we answer some common questions and misunderstandings about meat, the environment, and vegetarians.

1. Why are you talking about the environmental impact of meat? Does it really matter what people eat?

Yes, it does. Among other things, because meat and dairy products affect the climate about as much as all the world’s cars, buses, boats, and aircraft together. It depends on several things. Cows and sheep emit large amounts of methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The feces, the manure, and the production of feed also account for large emissions.

In addition, the majority of the world’s animal breeding is very inefficient. The animals are fed with calories that could feed many more people if the calories did not detour through the animals. Most of our agricultural land is used for animal feed. Therefore, a completely plant-based diet only takes up one-fifth of the land compared to many average diets.

But there are more environmental aspects than the climate to consider when we consume. Therefore, it is important that we, if and when we eat meat, choose it with care.

2. But do we humans need to eat meat every day?

No, there are plenty of protein sources from the plants – nuts, beans, lentils, and chickpeas are all packed with both protein and other nutrients.

Today, in large parts of the world, we eat so much meat that we increase the risk of bowel cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Among other things, the World Cancer Foundation recommends that we reduce meat consumption for health reasons.

Therefore, it is smart for both the environment and health to eat a largely vegetable diet and if and when you eat meat choose organic or locally produced meat.

3. Should be vegan?

No, but in order to stay within the boundaries of the planet, we must cut down heavily on the consumption of meat and dairy products. Those who only eat plant-based – as vegans – make a big contribution to the environment, but so does the one who cuts down on meat and dairy products and chooses diets with greater care, that is, organic and locally produced natural beef.

4. Is there a big difference between meat and meat? Is chicken the right climate-smart?

Certainly, chicken has a lower climate impact than pigs. And pigs have a lower impact than cows. But both chickens and pigs receive feed that competes with other production. If the land were instead used to make vegetable food for more, instead of meat and dairy for less, we could use the resources more efficiently. Then the soil is enough for more – both food, bioenergy and nature.

A healthy planet also means that several aspects must be taken into account, not just climate impact. What generates the least amount of emissions does not have to be the one that also benefits biodiversity, reduces eutrophication in the seas or spreads the least toxins. For example, Soy, which is also produced on land where rainforest has been destroyed, which is negative for biodiversity. When all the environmental and climate impacts are combined, it is clear that meats and dairies generally have a significantly greater negative impact on the planet’s health than vegetable food.

5. Soy, tofu, and other vegetable alternatives?

Our hunger for more and more meat and milk has been the main driver of the deforestation of the rainforest. The forest has been cut down to accommodate meat animals and intensive cultivation of soy, which then becomes food for cows, pigs and birds in especially the western world. Forest deforestation has caused enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, reduced carbon storage capacity and, not least, extinction of species and destroyed ecosystems.

Soybean cultivation, in turn, causes major problems with the use of extremely toxic pesticides and reduced biodiversity. Most of the soy that is grown is used as feed and only a very small part is used in food. It is not the soybean itself that is the problem but the huge demand for feed that requires intensive cultivation.

6. How can we maintain our open landscape without meat?

The landscape does not grow because of vegans, vegetarians or other people who pull down on the meat. The meat production that contributes to environmental benefits, such as a rich plant and wildlife, must remain. But today about half of the meat eaten in Europe is imported and chickens and pigs rarely contribute to any environmental benefit. The lining is also often imported, not infrequently from Brazil. In other words, it is a radical reduction in today’s meat consumption, which vegans and vegetarians rather help us achieve.

7. Should we have animals even if they affect the climate so much?

Yes, grazing animals are crucial to keeping the landscape open. Many plants, insects, butterflies, wild bees and birds depend on open landscapes and live in interaction with each other. Biodiversity provides us with several ecosystem services we cannot do without. These include the production of food, clean air, carbon storage, food soil formation, and pollination.
Natural pastures are also poorly suited for food production other than grazing. And if we are going to achieve the environmental goal of a rich cultivation landscape, there is a need to increase grazing on unused pastures. This does not mean that we need more grazing animals, but that the animals we have will be grazing to a greater extent, and in the right place. Since far from all grazing animals graze on natural pastures, this means that most of the meat consumed does not contribute to the environmental goals at all.

8. But grass-fed cows are climate-neutral? They are part of a natural cycle.

Unfortunately, cows will never be climate neutral because they form large amounts of methane gas in their digestive system. Methane is part of the carbon cycle, but when the carbon takes the detour via methane, the methane content of the atmosphere increases and thus the climate impact compared to if the carbon had become carbon dioxide directly. Cows do not, of course, emit more carbon than they eat, but the climate impact per carbon atom is considerably greater when the carbon atoms are included in methane instead of carbon dioxide. The heating effect of methane is 34 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, calculated over 100 years.

But cows have always been there, you might think. And the climate did not go crazy because of that? The problem is that today there are about 50 times more than wild humans on earth. This has contributed to the methane content of the atmosphere being 150 percent higher today than it was 250 years ago. In addition, today’s large-scale animal breeding leads to forest deforestation to give way to fodder crops and pastures, which also has a significant impact on the climate. This, combined with fossil carbon emissions, poses a major climate problem, which we can only solve if we reduce both carbon dioxide and methane emissions.

9. Organic vegetables

Organic production does not have all the solutions – and the nutritional problems that need to be solved are largely common in all forms of agriculture. Today, more nutrients in the form of nitrogen are added to ecosystems than ever before. It has disrupted the entire global nitrogen cycle and is the root cause of the eutrophication of the seas as well as a heavy cause of climate impact, acidification and ozone holes. Research on the planet’s borders shows that agriculture’s supply of nitrogen must decrease by as much as 59 percent at the global level. The challenge is enormous – future agriculture must be based on something other than manure.

Organic cultivation without artificial fertilizers is, therefore, both an important driver for developing smart solutions and necessary for reducing the load on the planet. Instead of fertilizers, other methods are used, which are to a greater extent based on cycles, plant sequences, and nitrogen-fixing crops. And development is moving forward; There are examples of organic bread cereals that are fertilized only through the cultivation of nitrogen-fixing crops and there are techniques that can circulate pure phosphorus from our wastewater. And through the development of cereal varieties, we can get better yields in smaller quantities of nitrogen.

11. How should you really think about food?

Calm down, we’ll help you! We have made a small priority list:

1. Chill in green – it’s the most important thing you can do for the climate and the environment. And then we don’t just mean cucumber and salad. Think nuts, seeds, roots, mushrooms, beans, lentils, peas, tofu, soy products, sprouts, green leaves, and colorful vegetables.

2. Switch to Eco – so you contribute to healthier water, happier animals, smaller toxins and that more birds and flowers thrive. And in countries like Brazil, people don’t need to be poisoned when they pick your bananas or harvest your coffee beans.

3. Choose meat with care – if and when you eat meat, remember to reduce the portion and choose organic and Swedish natural beet meat.

12. But what, in the winter, no vegetables grow in the northern parts of the world. Is it really climate-smart to fly food here from the other side of the globe?

Of course, flying is very bad for the climate, but it is actually a very small proportion of the food we import that is transported by air, with the exception of some delicate fresh fruits and vegetables with short shelf life such as berries and fresh legumes. Most are transported by ship or by truck, which results in small emissions per kilo of food. Transport is therefore generally responsible for a very small part of the climate impact from our food production.

A significantly larger role plays the production method. Thus, it may be better to grow vegetables by season to avoid using energy-intensive greenhouses, and then transport them there where it is not seasonal. In fact, your car trip to the store is likely to be a far greater environmental boost than transporting your favorite food from the other side of the globe. Run hard with the drama, the bike bag and the arm muscles instead!

13. Isn’t this the politicians’ responsibility?

We all have a responsibility. Unfortunately, the politicians have been unusually slow to reduce the consumption of meat and dairy products, so the green popular trend we started to see in 2014 is warmly welcomed. The best cure for cowardly politicians is the courageous citizens who lead the way.

Naturally, the Nature Conservation Association also jokes about the politicians. In our report “The subsidized meat” we propose, among other things, a climate charge on meat that can pay for ecosystem services in agriculture. And we think that municipalities and county councils should invest in much more green in school dining rooms, in hospitals and in other public dining. Good for both the climate, budget and public health!

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