McCartney tips ‘Meat-free Monday’ to curb warming

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In a drive to halt climate change and improve public health, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney has told Europeans to abstain from eating meat at least once a week.

The ex-Beatle hammered home his message in the European Parliament on Thursday (3 December) in the presence of the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri. 

"Cutting down on meat consumption would be an extremely effective way of cutting down on global warming," said Pachauri himself. 

Several other speakers pointed to recognised international statistics which show that agriculture contributes to 18% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – 60% of which come from livestock – well above the 13% which come from the transport sector. In addition, methane is known to be 21 times more powerful a GHG than CO2 and stays in the atmosphere for longer.

Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, noted that the rapid expansion of pasture for livestock is also a major cause of deforestation, in particular in the Amazon, which further contributes to climate change. 

Others highlighted the water intensity of meat production, which is said to account for 8% of global water use. Pachauri said that producing a kilo of beef takes 15,500 litres of water, while Paul McCartney, the initiator of Meat-free Monday, noted that one burger costs "a four-hour shower". 

In a joint statement with Pachauri and McCartney, the organiser of the hearing, European Parliament Vice-President Edward McMillan-Scott (UK) called on governments and individuals to opt for at least one meat-free day a week to do their bit to fight climate change. 

Food security

Reducing livestock would not only contribute to fighting global warming, but would also contribute to food security, the speakers noted.

They stressed that a third of all cereal and over 90% of the soya beans grown today are used to feed 20 billion livestock, despite the growing number of hungry people in the world. 

"It take 10 kilos of feed grain to produce one kilo of beef," said Pachauri.

Health benefits

Furthermore, Alan Dangour, public health nutritionist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, argued that reduced meat consumption would lead to health benefits as well. He said that international dietary science shows that excess consumption of meat and dairy is related to poor health outcomes. This is particularly true for adults, he said, highlighting the increased risk of cardio-vascular diseases (CDV) caused by saturated fats. 

Citing a UK study, Dangour said that if livestock were to be reduced by 30% in the UK, there would be a substantial decrease (17%) in adult premature deaths due to CDV and a £20 billion reduction in yearly healthcare costs.

Changing behaviour

Asked how people could be convinced to change their behaviour, McCartney referred to other tough behavioural changes that have taken place and said that eating less meat "would not be any harder than those". 

"We did not recycle before – now we do. At first, we rejected hybrid cars and now they are becoming popular. Banning smoking in public places to protect passive smokers also faced great resistance and now we have such bans," McCartney said.

"A new ethical issue [climate change] has arisen and meat eating is no longer a personal choice but one that will affect the whole planet," he went on, describing a recent Swedish initiative to add carbon labels to food products as a good example of such guidance. 

Increasing the price of meat

Asked whether increased taxing of meat products would be a way to induce changes in behaviour, as is already being done on the transport sector, Pachauri said that "a tax would make a lot of sense," but that one should not wait for such measures to change eating habits. 

Olivier De Schutter also noted that the "modes of food consumption in rich countries have huge negative externalities that are not accounted in the prize of food". 

Their views were echoed by Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness (EPP), who believes that "we don't pay enough for our food, nor to our farmers," forcing farmers "to produce more to earn less".

In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that 18% of annual worldwide greenhouse gases (GHGs) are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs and poultry. 

Meanwhile, a recent Worldwatch Institute paper drafted by World Bank environmental experts argues that the level of GHG emissions linked to livestock production have been underestimated or simply overlooked. The report argues that when GHGs from across the whole lifecycle and supply chain of animals are taken into account, the percentage raises to a total of 51% of all annual emissions caused by humans (EURACTIV 23/10/09). 

A recent report by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre shows that meat and dairy products contribute on average 24% to the environmental impact of total final consumption in the EU 27, while constituting only 6% of the economic value. The main improvement options identified lie in agricultural production and food management by households (avoidance of food wastage), and are related to power savings. 

The main direct climate impact of the beef and dairy industry is methane produced by enteric fermentation from cattle. Methane is said to be over 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Swedish guidelines for climate-friendly food choices were published in summer 2009. Developed by the Swedish authorities, the guidelines recommend citizens to reduce their meat and rice consumption as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (EURACTIV 22/06/09).

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