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Low Carb(on) Diets 12.06.07

Richard Barnett, guest columnist and editor of Ethical Junction’s newsletter Ethical Pulse writes on the carbon impact of our diets and why the Environment Agency is going vegan.

Move over Atkins, forget South Beach, there’s a new type of diet about to hit the headlines.

The contribution of meat production to CO2 emissions is the latest ‘revelation’ as growing concern about climate change results in a re-evaluation of many aspects of modern life. I say ‘revelation’ because non-meat eaters have known about it for a long time. But now the government seems to be waking up to the unsustainability of meat dominated western diets.

In an email leaked to the vegetarian campaign group, Viva!, a member of staff at the Environment Agency recently expressed sympathy for the benefits of a vegan diet. The official said the government may in future recommend eating less meat as one of the "key environmental behaviour changes" needed to combat climate change.

Until recently there have been other more obvious targets including air travel, car use and energy production. But food, apart from shelter the only real essential in our consumer-led society, has not been focused on. Now the evidence is mounting up.

In November 2006 the Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) initiative published the most comprehensive review of the global meat industry to date . In summary the report found that the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.

Some key findings within the report are that livestock production is responsible for: 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (transport emits 13.5%) 70% of the Amazon deforestation 64% of all acid rain-producing ammonia 33% of all global cropland is occupied for animal feed

The report’s authors forecast that the demand for meat will more than double by 2050 and therefore the environmental impact on production must be halved to avoid worsening its already unsustainable effects.

Another aspect of the wastefulness of meat production can be seen in its use of water. Water consumption for producing meat is some 50 -100 times that required for growing grain. It takes 50,000 – 100,000 litres to produce a kilogram of meat but just 900 litres to produce a kilogram of wheat.

The emphasis on a high meat content of most western diets coupled with the inefficiency and wastefulness of meat production means that the amount of land required to sustain the average American is 9.7 hectares. The average Indian needs just 0.4 hectares.

By using Earthday.net ‘s calculator to work out an individual’s environmental footprint you can see the impact of different diets in terms of how much land is needed to sustain your lifestyle. In the UK the average environmental footprint is 5.8 hectares. If the planet was divided equally amongst the world’s population we would all get 1.8 hectares. In terms of food alone the average person eating meat and dairy every day requires 1.6 hectares. A person following a vegan diet needs 0.5 hectares .

Added to the issues of pollution, land degradation and loss of bio-diversity can be the economic costs of treating illness. One has to look no further than the government’s recent attempts to tackle obesity to see that diets high in animal fats are clearly considered to be dangerous to health.

Perhaps in the near future we’ll see another label appearing on our food – a figure relating to some sort of sustainability index? Now that really would be a dietary aspect worth concentrating on!

Richard and Sandra Barnett run The Barn vegeterian/vegan guest house in the New Forest

Peter Shield

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