Is vegetarianism the way to save the planet?
Telling individuals to eat less meat to stop climate change doesn’t challenge an unsustainable and destructive system, writes Camilla Royle
Environmental economist Lord Stern of Brentford has recently argued that in order to stop climate change we should all start eating less meat.
He proposes that the Copenhagen climate conference at the end of this year should introduce measures to increase the price of meat and gradually make meat-eating socially unacceptable.
Stern’s comments will strike a chord with many people. Meat and dairy production uses much more land and water than growing crops does, and the methane emissions from farm animals contribute to global warming.
And people are understandably shocked by the inhumane way meat is produced under capitalism, with chickens and pigs crammed into factory farms in order to produce as much food as possible at the lowest cost.
Vegetarianism is already popular among sections of the environmental movement.
But universal vegetarianism wouldn’t be enough to stop climate change, because it would leave the root causes of climate change intact.
Food production under capitalism, whether meat or not, damages the environment because its sole concern is making profit.
It is also inherently wasteful because production is not planned. Instead food is overproduced as companies compete to sell the most.
By pointing the finger at individual consumers, Stern avoids criticising the multinationals that control our food supply.
Major supermarkets in Britain throw away two million tons of food from their shelves every year – enough to feed 6.3 million people.
They say there are too few staff to go around reducing prices and making sure the food is sold. But these supermarkets are making huge profits – they could create these jobs if they wanted to.
The drive for profit damages the environment in other ways too.
The rush for biofuels, for example, has meant that land and water that could be used to feed people is instead used to produce fuel for cars and planes.
Measures to “discourage” people from eating meat, such as raising its price, would have a greater impact on working class people, who spend a greater proportion of their income on food than the ruling class.
And the impact of preventing people in the Global South from eating meat would be even more extreme.
Eating a healthy and balanced vegetarian diet may be possible in places where there is access to other sources of protein – for example from soy, nuts and legumes – but for many this is not the case.
For example some environmentalists call for bans on the hunting of “bushmeat”, particularly in central African forests.
But if this was removed from people’s diets altogether it would reduce their protein intake to far below the level recommended by the World Health Organisation to avoid protein deficiency.
Stern’s proposals have been attacked more vigorously by worried meat and farming industry leaders than by ordinary people.
After all, many people are concerned about the environment and are looking for ways to do something to change things.
But if we take what scientists are saying about climate change seriously, simply cutting out meat will be inadequate to avoid catastrophe.
The Centre for Global Food Issues has pointed out that creating five billion vegans – most of the world’s population – might help, but would be impossible as well as undesirable.
Like most solutions proposed by the ruling class, vegetarianism doesn’t challenge the interests of that class, and therefore won’t change things far enough or quickly enough.
Stern points out that attitudes to food and drink have changed dramatically throughout his lifetime and can potentially be changed again.
However, history has shown that ideas about what is “natural” about how we live can very quickly alter when society changes.
A good example is the way that attitudes towards women shifted dramatically after the Russian Revolution in 1917, when women won the vote, access to education and greater freedom.
But these changes weren’t implemented individually or by strict legislation from the top. They came about by collective action involving both men and women.
The focus on personal lifestyle changes implies that we are all equally to blame for climate change and that we have a common interest in stopping it.
It draws attention away from the fact that the richest people in the world have much larger carbon footprints than the poorest and that tackling climate change directly challenges the interests of some of those at the top.
Such ideas could even lead people to side with the rich in blaming people in the Global South for the problem.
In a democratically planned society our relationship to food might change. We may find ourselves eating less meat or producing it in different ways.
However, the way to achieve this kind of society is to challenge the unsustainable capitalist one we live in at the moment.