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George Monbiot: Ending Meat & Dairy Consumption Is Needed to Prevent Worst Impacts of Climate Change

StoryNovember 29, 2018
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We look at the link between climate change and meat consumption on the heels of a series of damning reports that say if humans don’t act now to halt climate change, the results will be catastrophic. A new study by the World Meteorological Organization shows the past four years have been the hottest on record. On Tuesday, the United Nations reported that carbon emissions reached record highs in 2017 and are on the rise for the first time in four years. Radical reductions are necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, the level that would prevent the worst effects of catastrophic climate change. Livestock for meat and dairy products worldwide is responsible for almost 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second largest source of emissions after the fossil fuels industry. We speak with British author and journalist George Monbiot, who argues that the fate of the planet depends on the way we choose to eat.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show with the link between climate change and meat consumption, on the heels of a series of damning reports that say if humans don’t act now to halt climate change, the results will be catastrophic. A new study by the World Meteorological Organization shows the past four years have been the hottest on record. On Tuesday, the United Nations reported that carbon emissions reached record highs in 2017 and are on the rise for the first time in four years. Radical reductions are necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, the level that would prevent the worst effects of catastrophic climate change.

The U.N. reports that economic growth is responsible for last year’s rise in emissions and that all G20 countries are not on track to meet their 2030 climate pledges. The U.N. report comes just days after the United States government released an alarming study saying that the warming climate will increase wildfires, destroy infrastructure, worsen air quality, ruin crops, lead to more frequent disease outbreaks and could shrink the U.S. economy by as much as 10 percent by the end of the century.

As the world prepares for U.N. climate talks next month in Katowice, Poland, we turn to the rarely covered devastating impact of meat production on the climate. Livestock for meat and dairy products worldwide is responsible for almost 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second largest source of emissions after the fossil fuels industry. Meat and dairy production also uses about 70 percent of all agricultural land across the world. It’s one of the principal causes of biodiversity loss, water pollution and deforestation.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the World Resources Institute, global meat and dairy consumption is likely to increase by nearly 70 percent by 2050. The resulting agricultural emissions will make it impossible to limit global temperature rise to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, a target of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Our next guest argues the fate of the planet depends on the way we choose to eat. George Monbiot is calling for a new revolution with a global shift to a plant-based diet. The British author and journalist joins us now from Oxford, Britain. George Monbiot is a columnist with The Guardian, his most recent book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. His latest piece for The Guardian is headlined “The Earth is in a death spiral. It will take radical action to save us.” He’s written extensively on the link between animal farming and climate change, has himself switched to a plant-based diet.

George Monbiot, welcome back to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: So you say the best way to save the planet: drop meat and dairy. Lay out your case.

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, it’s not just that meat and dairy production make a huge contribution to climate breakdown. And I call it “climate breakdown” because calling it “climate change” is like calling an invading army “unexpected visitors.” This is, you know, an existential crisis we face. Not just that it also contributes to much wider environmental breakdown, the collapse of biodiversity, the destruction of habitats, the destruction of soil and water resources. But it’s also that if we stop eating meat and dairy, we have an enormous potential then for sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, because so much of the land which is currently occupied by livestock would revegetate if those livestock were removed. Trees could grow back, deep vegetation could grow back, and in doing so, they suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and give us the best possible chance we have of preventing climate chaos and breakdown.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain, George, the amount of agricultural land that’s being used to produce food for the livestock—for the livestock and not for human beings—and why you think that’s especially injurious to the climate?

GEORGE MONBIOT: It’s quite remarkable, really. Livestock account for 83 percent of our agricultural land use, according to one study, and produce 18 percent of our diet. It’s a huge disproportion. Now when you look specifically at grazing livestock, which people tend to assume is more environmentally friendly than feeding them on grain—it’s completely the opposite. It’s the worst possible option. Grazing livestock occupy twice as much land as all the arable and horticultural land put together, yet they provide just over 1 percent of our diet. It’s a fantastically wasteful way of using land.

And in order to keep your livestock on that land, you have to exclude most other wildlife. You have to kill the predators. You have to exclude the competitors, the other herbivores, the wild ones. The livestock wipe out most of the trees because they eat the tree seedlings. So the old trees die on their feet, and they’re not replaced. They wipe out the deep vegetation. They cause a radical simplification of the ecosystem. And as a result of all that, where livestock are grazed, you end up with more or less a wildlife desert, very low carbon-holding capacity. Lots of damage downstream, as well, as soil is eroded, as animal wastes go into the water supply. So, doing it with the grazing route is very damaging.

Feeding them on grain is also very damaging. The great majority of the soya plantations, which are now devastating South America, wiping out the Gran Chaco dry forest, the Cerrado systems in Brazil, many of the forests around the edges of the Amazon basin—all being destroyed en masse for soya farming—the great majority of that soya goes into animal feed, such that if you want to eat less soya, you should eat soya. The reason being that there’s far more soya embedded in a lump of meat that’s been produced in indoor agriculture than there is embedded in a lump of tofu.

AMY GOODMAN: Hmm. And you’re talking about soybeans, of course. I’d like to turn to another perspective on animal farming. This is ecologist Allan Savory talking about the role livestock can play in, well, he says, preserving the environment. He’s speaking in a TED talk.

ALLAN SAVORY: Only one option left to climatologists and scientists, and that is to do the unthinkable and to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators, and mimic nature. There is no other alternative left to mankind. …

When I first realized that we had no option as scientists but to use much-vilified livestock to address climate change and desertification, OK, I was faced with a real dilemma: How were we to do it? …

I found there were planning techniques that I could take and adapt to our biological need, and from those I developed what we call holistic management and planned grazing, a planning process. And that does address all of nature’s complexity and our social, environmental, economic complexity.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s ecologist Allan Savory. Can you respond to Mr. Savory, George Monbiot?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, I looked into his claims very carefully, because his TED talk went viral. It’s very popular claims. I looked into the science behind them and found there was none. Instead, there were a large number of scientific papers showing that those claims are rubbish. They don’t stand up at all. I then interviewed Mr. Savory and asked him to justify his claims. He simply couldn’t give me a straight answer to any of my questions.

Then there was a major study conducted, reviewing 300 papers on this subject, to see whether his claims, such as his holistic ranching could suck all the industrial carbon out of the atmosphere, whether that stood up. They found there is simply no evidence for such claims at all, that they are wildly wrong. And unfortunately, those claims, because they’re highly attractive to people, because they create the impression that you can eat meat and save the world, are simply not based on fact.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, George Monbiot, can you talk about the fact that we are constantly encouraged to shift from farm-produced meat to free-range meat as a way of making meat consumption both healthier and more sustainable? I mean, bracketing for the moment that most people in the world can’t afford it anyway because it’s so—farm-raised meat is so expensive, you have said that that’s just moving from one disaster to the next. Could you explain why you think that farm-raised meat is so problematic?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, intensively produced meat, indoor meat, is tremendously cruel to animals. The huge battery hog farms that you have in the United States, the chicken farms packed into broiler sheds, this is an unbelievable exercise in mass cruelty, in the torture of intelligent, sentient beings. It is an absolute outrage. And so people say, “Well, let’s not do that then. Let’s go for free-range meat instead.” And that’s certainly kinder to the animals, but it’s much crueler to the living planet. Because it’s such an inefficient use of land, free-range meat has a far greater environmental impact, even than the very high impact of indoor meat production.

Indoor meat production has huge environmental impacts because of the feed used to give to the animals, because of the huge amount of waste that they produce, which then goes into lagoons and floods out of those lagoons and poisons rivers and causes dead zones at sea. But the impact of free-range production is even greater because it requires using such a vast area of the planet to produce so little meat. And across that area, we see the radical simplification of ecosystems. We see the killing of predators. We see fences put up, keeping out herbivores. We see trees removed. A complete transformation from rich ecosystems to very poor ones.


GEORGE MONBIOT: So we’re faced with a choice here. If you want to eat meat—sorry, yes? Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: No, you can talk about the choice.

GEORGE MONBIOT: OK. If you want to eat meat, you can have extreme cruelty or extreme environmental destruction. My answer to that? Stop eating meat.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about your own personal answer and how you changed. I mean, you intellectually knew this before, but would you describe yourself as a vegan?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Yes, I’m very close to being a vegan. I’ll eat venison, deer meat, because in Britain deer are massively overpopulated because we killed all the predators. So it’s almost impossible to establish new forests, because the deer eat all the seedlings. So we should have fewer deer. We need to cull the deer. And I’m happy to eat the wild deer that are culled. I’ll eat roadkill, as well, because that has no impact. Apart from that, it’s basically one egg a month, which I can’t quite give up eggs altogether, so I’ll eat one egg a month. But apart from that, I don’t eat farmed animal products at all, and I’ll have a very small amount of wild animal products, but that’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: And how hard was it to make that transition for you?

GEORGE MONBIOT: You know, I thought it was going to be really hard, particularly cheese. I loved cheese. I just thought, “How can I ever possibly give up cheese?” And something very odd happened. Within about a couple of weeks of giving up cheese, suddenly, cheese was just like a lump of lard to me. “Why would I eat this? It’s just—ew, it’s just fat. And it’s weird.” My tastes changed. What I thought I couldn’t do, suddenly I couldn’t not do. You know, I just don’t like cheese anymore. It’s a very odd thing that happens in the brain, that you adapt to your diet, you adapt to your circumstances, and suddenly you like what you’re now eating, and you don’t like what you were previously eating. So, I thought it was going to be really tough, and it wasn’t tough at all.

The one difficult thing about it is, you have to be able to cook, if you’re going to have a rich and interesting diet as a vegan. And luckily, in my case, I’m a good cook, and I enjoy cooking. But for large numbers of the people to take it up who aren’t into cooking, we do need a wider range of vegan meals. And that’s happening very rapidly in the U.K., where now 7 percent of the population is vegans. That’s gone up sevenfold in just three years. It’s a quite remarkable transformation. There’s a massive switch towards veganism here, and the supermarkets and the food manufacturers are responding very quickly to that, making vegan ready meals.

The switch towards plant-based burgers, cultivated meat, cultured meat, making what tastes and looks just like meat out of plant protein, that will massively help, as well. And what I really want to see is all that cheap meat which people eat without thinking, the chicken wings and the pork ribs and whatever else it might be, is quickly and rapidly substituted by cultured meat, which has a far, far lower environmental impact and doesn’t involve cruelty, either.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, despite the fact, as you say, George, that there are increasing numbers of vegans in the U.S., the U.S. remains—reportedly, meat consumption in the U.S. is three times the global average. So, could you explain this massive differential? I mean, the U.S. and Europe, on the one hand, and the rest of the world, poorer countries, where meat consumption is relatively low and small farmers rely on the animals that they raise for their own nourishment, would you say the same to them?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, what we see is an almost linear relationship between income and meat consumption. In the U.K., we eat our body weight in meat every year. In the U.S., you eat one and a half times your body weight in meat every year. And the poorest people eat very little meat. They have pretty well a vegan diet. Now, obviously, poor people might want to eat more meat. This is why I think the switch towards cheap cultured meat is an environmental priority.

But at present, our massive meat consumption deprives poorer people of their diet, because the grains and the pulses which should be grown for human beings are instead grown for livestock, which go into our stomachs. And it’s highly inefficient feeding them to livestock first. You get far more food efficiency out of it if you eat that grain and those pulses directly. At the moment, 50 percent of the plant protein we grow is fed to livestock rather than to human beings. That pushes up food prices, makes food much more expensive for the poor.

If the rest of the world wanted to switch to our levels of meat eating, well, there simply wouldn’t be enough food to go around. It’s a planetary disaster. There wouldn’t be enough soil. There wouldn’t be enough water. There wouldn’t be enough land. So, obviously, that’s not a sensible way to go. What we need to do in the rich nations is to switch towards a plant-based diet. We have the means to do so. We have the technology to do so. We have the choice to do so. And I believe that’s the choice we should take as quickly as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, George Monbiot. We want to thank you so much. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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