Meat consumption and its impact on the environment

 

Sir, – We are encouraged by Alan Matthews to downplay the recent Lancet report into meat consumption and its impact on the environment, in this country at least (“No need for 90% per cent drop in meat consumption, says Irish professor”, News, January 19th), as having a grass-fed herd (rather than grain-fed, etc) is a “significant positive”.

One would be led to believe that our ever-increasing national herd is in fact a good thing when viewed in the context of Irish agricultural practices.

Let’s take a closer look at the Irish context. We’ve recently been ranked as the worst performing county in the EU for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, our emissions are growing rather than decreasing, which will lead to significant fines of up to €500 million to purchase carbon credits by next year, according to Leo Varadkar.

The Environmental Protection Agency has flagged the agricultural sector to be the single biggest contributor to our emissions by 2020, in last year’s greenhouse gas projections report.

Our national herd is heading toward 7.5 million cows, each with a carbon footprint of two tonnes per year, and thus is the largest single contributor in this sector.

Something has to change and our farmers must be supported by the Government in a transition to a more sustainable agricultural practice.

Context is everything. – Yours, etc,

DECLAN BOND,

Ballyboughal,

Co Dublin.

Sir, – Alan Matthews is quoted as stating that “methane [in the atmosphere] disappears after around 10 years”, apparently ignoring the fact that it is converted to carbon dioxide which has a much longer, and probably lengthening, residence time. – Yours, etc,

DAVID NASH,

Dublin 4.

Sir, – Alan Eustace (January 19th) is of course correct to point out that Brendan Wright’s contribution (January 18th) squarely misses the point in failing to address the considerable environmental consequences of producing and consuming the quantity of meat that is consumed in Ireland and in speaking only of the apparent continued good health of our thoroughly carnivorous population.

However, this should not be taken as implying that Mr Wright is correct about the apparent absence of negative health consequences from eating meat daily and in significant quantities simply because “despite eating all that meat and drinking all that milk, and avoiding eating so many beans, soy and nuts, we have managed to achieve a longer lifespan than any previous generation”.

While average life expectancy has certainly increased along with meat consumption over the past century or so, it must be remembered that such statistics measure the average number of years one can expect to live at birth.

As a result, the dramatic decrease in infant mortality over this same period is likely to be driving such an increase, rather than the increased availability of sausages. Any negative consequences of consuming certain foods are only really likely to manifest themselves later in life. Advances in medical science in reducing the risk of death or delaying it in later life may also have served to negate the negative consequences of our dietary choices to prevent a decrease in average life expectancy up to this point.

We may imminently cease to be so lucky. – Yours, etc,

CHRISTOPHER

McMAHON,

Oriel College,

Oxford,

United Kingdom.

Sir, – It used to be the case that it was the expense or health concerns that limited how much meat we ate. Now it seems that buying meat in the quantity that we do is supporting an industry that is damaging the climate. As we carelessly throw rashers and sausages on the pan, we are saying to a future generation: “We who are about to fry, pollute you”. – Yours, etc,

COLIN WALSH,

Templeogue,

Dublin 6W.

Sir, – Rounding up milk and meat as prime among the usual suspects for greenhouse gas emission reductions has reached epidemic levels with headquarters in urban Ireland!

Of course, we need to reduce agricultural emissions and make wiser dietary choices. Yet concentrating on agriculture alone diverts attention from energy, transport, industry, housing and waste (each exacerbated by population growth) – all of which, globally and in Ireland, need to reduce their emissions just as much as does agriculture.

Put simply, if the Lancet’s suggestions for meat were to be applied, for instance, to energy and transport, a reduction of 90 per cent in emissions from those sectors would be necessary.

The benefits in terms of human health would be seen in greater physical activity, reduced air pollution, less obesity and less respiratory problems.

Of course, there would be less travel and international meetings, less opportunities and less human interaction but great solidarity with livestock farmers who face giving up their livelihoods!

And perhaps that solidarity could be shown also to those in energy, transport and manufacturing who would and will be dramatically challenged.

With regard to replacement proteins, soybean production is dominated by just three countries – the US, Brazil and Argentina – largely for climatic reasons. Much the same is true for legumes such as beans and for nuts.

So, before we eliminate our main protein sources, it might be a good idea to examine if there are replacements which could be grown successfully worldwide so as to avoid global political tensions, famine and food wars with their catastrophic consequences.

There is no magic bullet for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, no sector without huge work to do and no population that cannot contribute. Potential for reductions exist everywhere and a revolution in the way we live and work is necessary. But this needs solidarity as well as massive political and personal commitment which, today, is greatly lacking worldwide. – Yours, etc,

MICHAEL HAMELL,

Adjunct Professor

of Agriculture,

UCD,

Dublin 4.