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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
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Opinion So, it's now forbidden to tweet about reducing meat consumption - in a climate crisis?

Dr Catherine Conlon examines the controversy this week surrounding a deleted EPA tweet advocating reducing meat consumption.

LAST UPDATE | Aug 29th 2023, 8:30 PM

A TWEET URGING consumers to cut back on red meat consumption was deleted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week following objections from the Irish Farmer’s Association, stirring some controversy. 

The tweet urged consumers to ‘try veggie recipes’ and ‘reduce your red meat consumption slowly: veggie lunches, Meat Free Mondays etc.’ It also noted that a tenth of meat is thrown out.

The contents of the deleted tweet were shared later by a Green Party councillor, Oisín O’Connor, for context:

The IFA said the tweet had caused ‘considerable anger among farmers who feel it goes beyond the remit of the EPA and is not consistent with Government dietary guidelines.’

The Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) asked the EPA to clarify what it calls ‘political campaigning against meat.’

‘In the context of a body charged with environmental regulation, and key data measurement in respect of climate and water, it really isn’t a good judgement to be seen to be actively campaigning against Irish livestock products,’ said ICSA president Dermot Kelleher.

Bowing to pressure

We are living in the midst of a global climate crisis. This can no longer be ignored, with 2023 now on track to becoming the hottest year on record. The UN Secretary General, António Guterres recently went so far as to say the era of global warming had ended and we had now reached the “era of global boiling”.

Wildfires in Canada and Europe have burned with terrifying intensity, with torrential rain and flash flooding reported during the hot season in many parts of Europe. The time for arguing about whether climate change is happening has now passed. We must grapple with this reality, or we face an unmanageable future on this planet. 

The debate around the role of farming and meat production in the generation of CO2 emissions has come to the fore this year in particular, growing ever-heated and contentious.

Farmers often feel they are unfairly targeted by environmentalists, but the science is undeniable – a recent Oxford University study, found that people who live on a plant-based diet account for 75% less greenhouse gas emissions than meat eaters. The United Nations has been saying for years that plant-based diets can function as a powerful defence against a warming climate. This can no longer be dismissed as something sought by the ‘green agenda’. We can actively reduce our emissions by eating less meat in our diets.

One might ask then, why with all these public and science-based calls for a change in meat consumption did a body such as the EPA feel the need to bow to pressure from the farming lobby?

A recent study published this month showed that the gigantic power of the meat industry is blocking the development of greener alternatives needed to tackle the climate crisis. Analysis of lobbying, subsidies and legislation in the EU showed that livestock farmers received 1200 times more public funding than plant-based meat or cultivated meat groups. The authors state that ‘the amazing obstacles to the upscale of alternative technologies relate to public policies that still massively fund the incumbent system.’ Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist agrees in his book, Food for Life stating that the greatest action we can take to reduce global warming is to eat less meat.

We have two choices…

Recent Eurostat figures showed that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the first quarter of 2023 fell in all but six EU countries compared with the same quarter of 2022. In contrast, Ireland topped the poll with emissions increasing by 9.1% next to Latvia at 7.5% followed by Slovakia (1.9%), Denmark (1.7%), Sweden (1.6%) and Finland (0.3%). Overall, the EU economy’s GHG emissions fell by 3%, decreasing in five out of nine economic sectors. The largest reductions were in Bulgaria (15.2%), Estonia (14.7%) and Slovenia (9.6%).

These figures show Ireland to be lagging behind its EU neighbours in terms of its ability to address climate targets effectively, suggesting that the stark consequences of the dystopian future that failure to stay within 1.5C warming means for future generations is being ignored.

Christina Figueres, former UN Secretary for Climate Change from 2010 – 2016 and co-author of ‘The Future we Choose’ (2020) writes that two realities – one dystopian and one regenerative – have equal momentum now.

If we were to visualise these two realities as time lines on a graph, we believe that this moment, the beginning of this critical decade, is when we finally arrive at the cross-over point. Our responsibility now is to fertilise the trajectory of the future we do want, and there’s never been so much wind at our back. We have already achieved a host of social and political successes; we have most if not all of the technologies we will need; we have all the necessary capital; and we know which policies are the most effective.

Figueres and co-author Tom Rivett-Carnac take a stubbornly optimistic view of the future, arguing that devastation is a growing possibility but not yet our fate. They suggest that the full story is not yet written and that we can choose to write a story of the regeneration of both nature and the human spirit. But we have to choose.

Choice No 1 – business as usual…

The authors spell out the reality of living in this world by 2050 if we make no further efforts than those registered in 2015. In many places, the air will be hot and heavy and clogged with pollution. Forests will have been logged or consumed by wildfires; permafrost will continue to belch out GHGs. Tipping points will be passed repeatedly. Corals will be almost gone.

There will be no summer Arctic sea ice any more, the white ice no longer reflecting the sun’s heat, expanding the mass of water and pushing sea levels higher.

More moisture in the air and higher surface temperatures will cause a surge in extreme hurricanes and tropical storms. Coastal cities in Bangladesh, Mexico and the US will suffer brutal infrastructure destruction and extreme flooding, killing thousands and displacing millions. Water supplies will be repeatedly contaminated by sea salt intrusions and agricultural run-offs. Diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, cholera and malnutrition will be rampant.

Mass migration from areas no longer habitable will lead to accelerating refugee problems, civil unrest and bloodshed. Food production will be highly unpredictable. Global trade will slow as countries like China stop exporting and hold onto their own resources. Entire regions will suffer from stunting and malnutrition.

Choice No 2 – we act now…

The authors then point to the alternative world where emissions have been halved every decade since 2020 and temperatures that will consequently be no more than 1.5C warmer by 2100.

Forest cover worldwide would be 50%. Mostly, the air would be moist and fresh even in cities. Cities would be surrounded with ‘green envelopes’ to help with cooling, oxygenating and filtering pollution. Porous ground cover would capture rainwater, roofs would be white to reflect the heat and plants everywhere would cut noise and release water vapour into the air.

Three quarters of the population would live in cities with high-speed electric rail replacing domestic flights and passenger bullet trains replacing interstate highways. Millions of jobs would have evolved in transportation and renewable energy, employing workers displaced by the disappearance of the fossil fuel economy. All homes and buildings would provide their own electricity – homes would be covered in solar paint and every windy spot would have a wind turbine, with excess energy returned to the grid and smart tech preventing unnecessary consumption.

For the developing world, this new era of renewable energy would be transformative with energy being provided locally by rooftop solar modules or by wind powered mini grids in communities.

This system would mean that entire populations would leap forward with improved sanitation, education and healthcare. Children would be able to study at night and remote health clinics will operate effectively. Renewable electricity would provide for desalination and clean drinking water.

In the positive future, one where we make the right choices for the next generations, food production and procurement would be a key focus of the communities. Industrialised farming would quickly transition to regenerative farming practices – mixing perennial crops, sustainable grazing and improved crop rotation on large-scale farms with increased community reliance on small farms. The most resource-depleting foods of all – animal protein and dairy products – would have practically disappeared from our diets. Because plant-based replacements are so good, people would hardly notice. Unhealthy foods would have been taxed out of the centrepiece of our diets.

We all find change difficult as we cling to the past – even when the new brings tremendous benefits. The first step is to honour the past and let it go. As a species, we have been sustained and nourished by dairy and beef, but now is the time to thank intensive beef and dairy production for all it has done for us, retire it and move to a regenerative system that is in tune with ecosystems and climate targets. 

Dr Catherine Conlon is a public health doctor in Cork and former director of human health and nutrition, safefood.


Dr Catherine Conlon
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