Environment, Science

Is vegetarianism eco-friendly?

Morrissey recently ruffled feathers by saying “If you believe in the abattoir then you would support Auschwitz”. Hopefully his ill-chosen analogy will fall upon deaf ears. But this analogy must be frustrating for many, as environmental arguments for vegetarianism are convincing.


According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, meat production is responsible for approximately 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Over 1.4 billion cattle and 1.1 billion sheep graze 26% of the world’s land surface. Even more astoundingly, feed crops command a third of total arable land – land that could be used to grow food for human consumption. This is extremely inefficient.

Unfortunately, some people believe that a meat-free diet absolves them from other environmental responsibility. This can be attributed in part to the disproportionately large amount of coverage that vegetarianism, partially due to celebrity endorsement, enjoys. And it is understandable that we are more likely to be touched by the mistreatment of cattle than by 2012’s 27.8% increase in the Amazonian deforestation rate.

The idealists among us encourage vegetarianism in the hope that others will follow suit on a global scale. If meat consumption drops in rich countries, past experience suggests that corporations will hunt for markets in developing countries in much the same way that arms dealers have done. Between 2010 and 2011, the United States saw a $45bn increase in transfer agreements with developing countries. It is hard to imagine, given the socio-economic status of much of the world, that they would refuse the opportunity to buy tonnes of newly available, nourishing meat just because it harms the environment or because animals are mistreated.

It is difficult not to sound too fatalistic when talking about the future of the environment but for an idea of scale, in 2012 the total meat consumed in the USA and China alone was around 104 billion tonnes. This is over 250% more than in the EU. Global vegetarianism would benefit the environment greatly, but it would require levels of international co-operation and compromise that we are unfortunately far from achieving.


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August 2021
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