Make no mistake, I love meat. For a long time, I thought a meal without it wasn’t worth having. Living in an affluent European country, I also consider myself lucky to have access to organic food from animals that have been fed and looked after to the highest standards. However, one of my new year’s resolutions is to eat less of it.
Why? Because the world has a meat problem.
The majority of the world’s meat is intensively farmed. Excessive water consumption, high greenhouse gas emissions and the development of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria as a consequence of the overuse of antibiotics in food-producing animals – these are all well-known side-effects of industrial farming.
Despite many of us knowing this, meat production and consumption are not slowing down. According to data published in 2018 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, global meat production increased by 1.25% last year, reaching a total of 323 million tonnes.
With each person eating just over 94kg a year, North America is by far the world's biggest per capita consumer of meat. By contrast, the average African eats less than 12.5kg a year. In a study published last year in Science magazine, researchers from the University of Oxford and the Swiss agricultural research centre Agroscope collected data on 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors, packaging plants and retailers. It concluded that the food supply chain releases around 13.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air every year. Dietary change, they said, can deliver rapid benefits to the environment.
Fortunately, eating less meat is not only environmentally friendly, it's good for your health. A report launched last week by the World Economic Forum, including research from the Oxford Martin School, states that switching from meat to other sources of protein has the potential to "reduce the overall global burden of diet-related deaths by 2.4%, with that number climbing to 5% in high- and upper-middle-income countries" .
The key to making people embrace new dietary patterns is to act at grassroots level. Until recently, no one could agree what a healthy and sustainable diet was. This is what the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems aims to clear up. The independent scientific body constitutes more than 30 scientists from across the world and will next week release a global assessment of the food production system.
“This is the world’s first effort to set global scientific targets for how to feed the growing world population enough nutritious food within safe environmental limits,” says Dr Gunhild Stordalen, of EAT. “[This] is possible, but it will require major transformation of the current system, including a radical shift towards mostly plant-based and alternative protein diets.”
If that sounds like a daunting task, that’s because it is. However, it’s important to remember that individual actions can have a huge impact on big problems. This is what Laurent Bègue and Nicolas Treich, two French academics, are trying to remind people of. Launched earlier this week, their new initiative “Lundi Vert” aims to change French attitudes to food by getting people to embrace vegetarianism for one day a week. The campaign is backed by more than 500 public figures, including artists, athletes and scientists. In a move that would have surprised me a few years ago, I’m also lending my support.
Lundi Vert is the French addition to the global Meatless Monday movement. Founded in the US 15 years ago, this non-profit initiative now operates in 40 countries. But there are other campaigns with similar intentions. Take Veganuary, for example. Slightly more hardcore than taking one day a week off sausages, joining in involves making a commitment to not eat meat, dairy or fish for a month.
I'm not entirely giving up on meat, but I am experiencing a new-found love for vegetables. Many are delicious and do not need to be accompanied by a rare steak to make a great meal. Now, if a dedicated meat lover like me can change, anyone can.
Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ