Meat matters

Apparently I’m a prime candidate for vegetarianism, or partial vegetarianism. First off I’m female. Secondly I have a post-graduate degree. Thirdly, I am self-employed. And finally, to seal the deal, I am unmarried and don’t live in a large household.

Yes, according to recent research conducted by the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute) into ‘Determinants for Vegetarianism and Partial Vegetarianism’, I’m ticking all the boxes. And you know what, they’re kinda right. While I’m fond of a bit of grilled liver and will eat a rib-eye with relish, I don’t eat meat more often than I do eat meat. And I’m part of a growing trend – although Ireland is lagging way behind our UK neighbours on this one, with just 5% of the Irish population eating meat “infrequently” compared to 23% of them next door.

The working paper from the ESRI on the subject elaborates that “Concern for animal welfare and the environment are among the factors driving this trend. The relationship between meat consumption, especially red meat, and global environmental change has been acknowledged (FAO, 2006). Ruminant livestock are major emitters of methane, the second-most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas.”

Felicity Lawrence’s recent Guardian piece takes up the same point, stating that our global meat eating habits in one way or another “now contribute nearly one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. Most people could do more for the climate by cutting meat than giving up their car and plane journeys.”

Cost is another factor driving people away from meat. In the same piece, Felicity Lawrence reports that last August the price of minced meat rose by 25%, driven up by commodity values and the corresponding cost of animal feed. She suggests this might go some way to explaining a 9% increase in sales of Quorn in the UK last summer.

More and more food writers are championing the idea that eating less meat is the way forward. Michael Pollan captures it in his pithy and deceptively simple-sounding dictum: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Mark Bittman has much to say on the subject. And now Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has based his latest food campaign (and corresponding book and TV series) around the notion that we need to embrace vegetables, and get over our slavish reliance on meat.

You can read his reasoning in a recent Guardian article, but one of the points he makes is that “we need to eat more vegetables and less flesh because vegetables are the foods that do us the most good and our planet the least harm”. Indeed, the ESRI working paper refers to studies in the US into “medical costs associated with meat consumption in the USA”  which “estimate that costs of between $30-60 billion per year result due to the higher prevalence of hypertension, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, gallstones, obesity and food-borne illness among omnivores compared with vegetarians”.

So, eating less meat is better for us and our environment all round it would seem, not to mention the fact that when meat becomes an occassional choice rather than a default, it frees you up to be choosier about what meat you do eat, and the kind of life, diet and death it has been granted.

But what about protein deficiencies, you ask (as did my mother at last Thursday’s For Food’s Sake event, when we asked: ‘Meat – Do We Eat Too Much?’)… well apparently most of us eat too much protein. According to Mike Rayner of the British Heart Foundation and author of The Meat Crisis, most of us – even regular meat eaters – are already getting about 31g a day of protein from various non-meat sources, including cereals, fruit, nuts and veg. Which is just 5g less than what Geoffrey Canon, editor of World Nutrition, reckons women need, and 9g less than what men need. Not a huge gap for the vegetarian or partial vegetarian to make up so.

Others are more generous in their portion recommendations: Safe Food report that health professional recommendations are “57g in a single portion of lean, red meat”, but that the average portion size consumed during a meal is 121g. When you put that in the context (as Derry Clarke of l’Ecrivain did at our discussion) of an 8oz steak, which is about the smallest that a restaurant would dare serve up, 121g or just over four ounces of steak sounds positively puny.

And while there used to be a panic that only meat contained ‘complete proteins’ along with the necessary amino acids, Felicity Lawrence states that “nutritional science has subsequently caught up with the wisdom distilled in peasant cuisines that depend on beans and grains” and now acknowledges that meat is not the only source of these important amino acids and nor do we have to consume them all at once to reap their benefits.

If all this has got you thinking and you would like to read some more, the following links may be of interest (just click on any to link through). If the UN’s predictions of the global demand for meat consumption doubling by 2050 is right, the issues look like important ones for us to get our heads around.

ESRI working paper

Article by Frank Armstrong, one of our panellists

Article on the subject from Felicity Lawrence

HFW’s River Cottage Veg manifesto

Safe Food on our relationship with beef



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  • Stef

    That meat contributes one fifth of global greenhouse emission figure has been called into question, Simon Fairlie goes into excruciating detail about the errors in the FAO’s report in his book Meat: A Benign Extravagance. It’s a really heavy read but definitely worth a look. George Monbiot has a good review here:

  • Elena

    What I totally fail to understand is the assumption that you either eat meat or vegetables. I’m a convinced omvivore and I eat more variety of fruit and vegetables than some of my vegetarian friends.

    • Aoife

      Hi Elena, sorry it’s taken me so long to reply – been clearing through a load of spam comments and came across yours. Thanks for reading and commenting. I too love my meat, and agree with you that we don’t need to chose one or other, I just think it’s interesting to look at some of the issues behind our meat-eating habits and some of the implications.