Vegetables good – meat bad. That’s what we keep being told by people wanting us to save the planet by going vegetarian,
But a study by the World Wildlife Fund has found that the environmental impact of growing some meat substitutes are worse than that from raising animals.
It has often been claimed that avoiding red meat is beneficial to the environment, because it lowers emissions and less land is used to produce alternatives.
But a study by Cranfield University, commissioned by WWF, the environmental group, found a substantial number of meat substitutes – such as soy, chickpeas and lentils – were more harmful to the environment because they were imported into Britain from overseas.
Far be it for me to stick up for anyone advocating we all give up meat, but this is the food miles argument which Lincoln University proved doesn’t necessarily stack up.
How far produce travels is only one factor. Lincoln’s study found New Zealand’s free range meat had a smaller environmental footprint even when transport was accounted for than meat from intensively farmed animals sold on local markets.
The study concluded: “A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK.”
The results showed that the amount of foreign land required to produce the substitute products – and the potential destruction of forests to make way for farmland – outweighed the negatives of rearing beef and lamb in the UK.
An increase in vegetarianism could result in the collapse of British farming, the study warned, causing meat production to move overseas where there may be less legal protection of forests and uncultivated land.
Meat substitutes were also found to be highly processed, often requiring large amounts of energy to produce. The study recognised that the environmental merits of vegetarianism depended largely on which types of foods were consumed as an alternative to meat.
It’s good to see an environmental group taking the trouble to investigate claims that vegetarian diets are better for the planet than those which include meat and that the study looked at the economic impact a mass conversion to vegetarianism would have.
This study shows that working out the green credentials of any produce is a complex business and being vegetarian isn’t necessarily better for the environment than eating meat.