Reducing red meat consumption—and eating less meat in general, for that matter—is a regular staple on my New Year’s resolution list. And plenty of data suggest it’s become a more popular resolution in recent years.
A British nonprofit, Veganuary, has tried to make it more official. Since 2014, the organization has called on people worldwide to pledge to go vegan in the month of January, and hopefully beyond. In 2019, more than 800,000 people ate less meat and animal products for at least a month, according to a study conducted by the group.
Cheerio, steak and kidney pie?
The food and agriculture industry is starting to see the effects of reduced meat consumption. Last year, red meat sales in the United Kingdom dropped by $242 million, or 185 million British pounds.
It may surprise some that Britain, the home of Beefeaters, Sunday roasts, and steak and kidney pies would be at the forefront of the vegetarian shift, but there is a long history there. The first vegetarian society in the modern western world was founded in 1847 in Ramsgate, England. During the European Enlightenment and early 19th century, vegetarianism was more accepted in England than anywhere else in Europe. Further, when I lived there 20 years ago, I remember seeing a lot more vegetarian options and friendliness toward meat-free eating than I saw in the U.S. at the time.
Health and cost savings top the list of reasons Britons are cutting back on meat consumption, but the environmental impact plays a role as well. Even in the U.S., where consumption of meat outstrips that of other western countries, there are signs of a shift. Sales of plant-based foods increased by 20 percent across the U.S. in 2018.
Attitudes toward red meat consumption shift on both sides of the pond
Climate action advocates surely welcome these trends. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommended reducing meat consumption as a tool for combating climate change, and a new story seems to come out every week about going vegetarian—even part-time—as an environmental measure.
However, some recent studies indicate many meat substitutes may be detrimental to the environment. The news can be confusing to consumers, even as more people adopt a diet with less meat. The reality is: As consumers, we should all be more mindful of the costs of food production and the associated waste. There is a lot of water and energy burned in our food systems, and whether people choose a meat-free diet or not may be out of their hands if we start running out of water.
An overlooked reason to go plant-based: Meat production’s impact on water
For example, 80 percent of all water used in California is used by the agricultural sector. In addition to being unavailable for other uses, any water that is returned must be purified, an energy-intensive process, which, depending on the energy source, can also be water-intensive. Further, much of the food produced worldwide is wasted—around 25 percent—and with that, roughly 4.2 trillion gallons of water are lost.
The key is efficiency, both in food processing and our consumption. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 40 to 50 percent of fruits and vegetables are wasted, much before they even reach our shelves. In a visit to the U.K. two years ago, I was pleased to find imperfect vegetables not only sold in the local supermarket, but also marketed as such. Further, more efficient irrigation techniques and the deployment of low-water wind and solar power could reduce both the energy and water footprint of production, while next-generation warehouses and silos could prevent the spoilage and waste of food between the field and the supermarket.
Meat production and processing are heavy burdens on our food systems, and reducing consumption will likely have environmental benefits, from lower water and energy use to carbon and methane emissions reductions. But animal agriculture is only part of the problem of a larger conundrum of how to feed billions of people sustainably. Better data is needed across the energy-water-food nexus to increase efficiency. Being mindful of what we choose to eat is important, but like the industry, we should be taking a holistic view of the entire system.
Image credit: Pixabay
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.