‘Cranky’, ‘loony’ and ‘bizzare’. This was the media’s level-headed response last week to comments made by Kerry McCarthy, Labour’s new Shadow Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Following her appointment to Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, comments made during an interview in April with animal rights magazine Viva!Life were dug up and published as ‘news’. And what were those comments? According to the headlines, the new Shadow Secretary wants meat-eaters to be treated like smokers. Just quite how they thought she’d go about this is unclear. Maybe by sending them out of the office for 5 minute meat breaks every now and then? Her actual words were slightly different; she suggested that there ought to be ad campaigns encouraging people to consume less meat, as there is with tobacco. Admittedly, this is not as provocative a headline and probably wouldn’t bait as many clicks.
Despite the number of articles written about these comments, not one of them thought to expand on why Kerry McCarthy might have made this statement. None of them asked why someone who is passionate about the environment would want to reduce the levels of meat we, as a society, eat. In short, each article completely ignored the vast body of evidence which demonstrates the very real, and destructive effect that the animal industries have on the environment.
None of the articles thought it fit to mention Livestock’s Long Shadow, the 2006 UN report which states that “livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” The report found that animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the combined exhaust from all cars, vans, trucks, trains, boats and aeroplanes. Even if we were to stop burning fossil fuels today, we would still exceed our CO2 emissions limit by 2030 just from raising animals for food. In fact, it is estimated that ditching meat from your diet would cut your carbon footprint in half.
None of the articles mentioned that 91 per cent of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is caused by animal agriculture, either to raise the animals themselves or to grow the crops that feed them. The amount of land used by the meat industries is huge, with a meat-based diet requiring five times as much land as a varied vegan diet whilst the same amount of land it would take to produce 375 pounds of meat could produce 37,000 pounds of crops.
None of the articles reported that over half of the water used globally goes towards raising animals for food. Farmed animals require large quantities of drinking water and huge volumes are used to grow the crops that are fed to them. It takes only 1000 litres of water to grow a kilo of wheat but 15,000 litres to grow a kilo of beef.
None of the articles were concerned that we are currently growing enough food to feed 10 billion people. Worldwide however, at least 50 per cent of the crops we grow are fed to livestock, which is an incredibly ineffective way of transferring energy since it requires 8 pounds of crops to produce a pound of meat. Diets with large portions of meat are a privilege of the wealthy nations; 82 per cent of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals who are killed and sent to be eaten by western countries.
This is, of course, not just an issue of accurate representation in the British media, its implications are much wider. The reluctance of environmental organisations to address the devastating impact of animal agriculture, which is predominantly due to the tremendous lobbying power of the meat and dairy industries, is the subject of Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, a documentary that I would recommend to anyone who wants to find out more about this topic.
Despite what her critics say, it may be that Kerry McCarthy is better suited than most to carry out her role given her readiness to confront one of the most environmentally damaging industries in the world. Not only does animal agriculture threaten the ecosystem, it also consumes huge amounts of food and water which could otherwise be redistributed amongst the world’s poor and starving. This seems already to be a strong case for vegetarianism without even touching on the issue of animal suffering and the 160 billion animals killed every year for meat and dairy.
Whether or not you agree with Kerry McCarthy’s proposal to deal with this problem, it seems undeniable that the problem is there. Furthermore, there seems to be a widespread lack of information on this topic as well as a reluctance to engage with the wider effects of agribusiness. Unfortunately, the topic of meat-eating and vegetarianism seems to have acquired a taboo status akin to politics and religion i.e. not to be discussed, ironically, at the dinner table. However, in a world where we are consuming more and more meat, it is even more important that we discuss and address the sustainability of our food sources. If you’d like to find out more, please get in touch with the Vegetarian and Vegan Society.