Globally, meat consumption has increased by 20 per cent in the last decade despite concerns about its environmental impact. So, asks Laurie Tuffrey, can going vegetarian really help the earth? A quick glance at the statistics for the environmental impact of meat production provides ample food for thought. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provides some staggering statistics. For instance, there are almost 1.4 billion cattle and 1.1 billion sheep on the planet producing 37 percent of the total methane generated by human activity, a gas that is 20 times more effective at trapping greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. 70 per cent of all agricultural land, just under a third of the earth’s entire land surface, is used for rearing farm animals. The amount of water needed to produce one kilogramme of beef varies depending on which figures you look at, but estimates are between 13,000 litres and 100,000 litres. With this in mind, just how sustainable is eating meat? And if things really are as frightening as they appear, why don’t more people turn to vegetarianism or even veganism? Animal welfare remains a primary motive for choosing a vegetarian diet and with over two million animals killed every day for food in this country, according to the Vegetarian Society, it’s not hard to see why. In the UK, according to a 2009 Food Standards Agency survey, around three per cent of the population are currently vegetarian, with another five per cent regularly choosing meat-free meals. Concern for the environment, though, is also a driving factor for a number of vegetarians. ‘What we choose to eat,’ says Su Taylor, a spokesperson for the society, ‘is one of the biggest factors in our personal impact on the environment.’ The Vegetarian Society cite research by RK Pachuari, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who found that one hectare of land, producing vegetables, fruit and cereals can feed up to 30 people. The same area, if used to produce meat, could feed between only five and 10. Speaking to the Ecologist last year, the vegetarian American author Jonathan Safran Foer suggested a possible reason why vegetarianism isn’t taken up more widely: ‘People use the fear of hypocrisy to justify total inaction.’ The idea that the arguments for vegetarianism lead to veganism, which can be seen as too radical a shift and stops people from making any change in their diet, is familiar to the Vegetarian Society’s head of communications, Liz O’Neill. ‘He puts it beautifully,’ she says. ‘To make a commitment to something - even if it’s not the perfect answer - you are removing yourself from the damaging behaviour, from the damaging industry to whatever extent that commitment encircles. It’s only by drawing a line and saying “I’m not going to be a meat-eater” that you can actually not eat any factory farmed meat.’ In the face of this, justifying eating meat from an environmental perspective can seem difficult. With factory farming the predominant means of meat production - Compassion in World Farming estimates that at least 80 per cent of the EU’s farm animals are factory farmed – and a host of other issues such as overuse of antibiotics in the mix, it’s becoming harder to be an ethical meat-eater. Guy Watson, the founder of Riverford Organics, an organic food box scheme delivering 40,000 boxes of vegetables, dairy and meat a week, appreciates the difficulties. ‘There’s no doubt that in general the world would be a better place if we ate less meat and most people eat more than is good for their health and the planet’s.’

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