Scientists want us to eat less meat. But is over-consumption really the issue? And when was it ever as simple as ‘eat less meat’? Here, Sarah Trew looks at food waste and the growing human population, and comes to some conclusions that you might not expect from a lifelong vegetarian…
Food waste, farming and how to feed an exploding population
The human population is growing, and meat and dairy production is contributing to climate change more than fossil fuels.
So how are we going to feed everybody, and reverse climate catastrophe at the same time?
You could argue that overpopulation is the real issue. While it’s true that we have an overpopulation problem, this point misses the bigger picture. The fastest growing populations – typically those in poorer, developing countries – are also the ones that consume the least meat and dairy.
Large-scale food production is designed to meet the West’s desire for consumption. It’s not driven by a need to feed the world; instead it’s driven by profit, regardless of the waste and environmental damage that intensive farming methods create.
It’s not really about cutting down on meat. It’s about cutting down on meat waste.
Western societies waste a lot of food, while poorer countries simply don’t have that luxury.
In the West, our desire to have what we want when we want it, rather than buying and consuming what we need, is a major driver in the over-production of food, particularly meat.
Research in 2016 showed that the UK throws away 34,000 tons of beef each year (around £260m worth). Globally, meat waste in 2014 equated to around 12 billion wasted animals, mostly from developed Western societies.
Every year, each UK household wastes £810 worth of food through over-buying. In 2016, this figure was £700, meaning food waste is an upward trend – one that’s well within our ability to change.
We say we don’t have the time or money to buy food from small organic farms, and we don’t want to be told to eat less meat – even though we’re wasting over 20% of the meat we buy.
With a little forethought about what you eat, and by buying responsibly from independent farmers (not the industrial scale enterprises that supply supermarkets), you can actively make a difference.
Industrial farms are not like your local farmers. They’re often owned by one person – someone who receives huge subsidies for owning more land and giving it over to monocultures, which destroy the soil and diversity of our countryside.
By buying from independent local businesses, you’ll support families working in a difficult industry, who are more likely to protect our countryside and try to maintain a thriving and diverse natural environment that everyone can enjoy for generations to come. If they farm livestock, they also often care deeply about the welfare of their animals.
When scientists ask us to eat less meat, it’s because we produce too much, and much of that is subsequently wasted. This in turn causes damage to the environment we love and want to protect, eroding soil and causing billions of pounds’ worth of waste.
Smallholders were once incredibly valuable custodians of our countryside, but they’re being forced out by those that put profit before people, countryside and planet – those that have been successful in convincing us that we need them to survive.
Think we can’t feed our growing population without industrial farming?
Our wasteful attitudes in the West are driving climate change and doing nothing to help feed an ever-increasing population.
In America, the average annual food waste bill per household is $2,200 ($165 billion).
You may think that we’ll need to rely on large-scale food producers and supermarkets even more in the future. But when you look at the cost per household of food waste, this logic simply doesn’t stack up. And that’s before you take into account the extra waste that supermarkets produce before the food even hits our trolleys.
A recent study showed that around 25,000 landowners, typically from the aristocracy and corporations, have control of over half of the land in the UK. These landowners and corporations exert huge influence and put pressure on local communities to do things for their own benefit while denying public access to land. They can also have a huge effect on local house prices – forcing local people from the area.
But they’re notoriously hard to track down due to offshore holdings and other methods of keeping their activities out of the public realm.
It’s easy to see why they’d push the notion that we need to produce food this way, when they’re the direct beneficiaries of the wastefulness in our society – that they actively encourage.
What can we do?
If you want to start taking action, check out Love Food, Hate Waste’s What To Do guide.
- Population growth: this is a good interactive visual, and the main site goes into loads of detail. It’s pretty fascinating stuff (and also shows a slowing trend – especially in Western countries).
- Who Owns England covers land ownership, plus this Guardian article summaries it pretty well too.
- Read about industrial farming subsidies and growth and intensive farming in the UK.
- UK meat waste and general food waste.
- Financial losses associated with food waste.
- This article mentions the carbon footprint of food waste alone.
- Pitney Farm Shop is a great local food supplier local to us here at Plastic Free Spirit.
About the author
Sarah is a lifelong vegetarian who recently also cut out dairy due to health reasons. Given her own food choices, you might think she’d be staunchly anti-carnivore, but that’s not true at all. Sarah likes to promote healthy eating – for both people and planet – and enjoys researching all the issues around food and climate. She wants to empower people to make their own choices, and is currently working on cutting down the plastic packaging in her weekly grocery shop.