The deteriorating state of the planet has caused Sir David Attenborough to lose his appetite for meat.
Speaking to Radio Times magazine, the broadcaster and natural historian urged for people to act more responsibly when making choices about food. “Above all, we have to bear one thing in mind – every single mouthful of food and every breath of air we take is dependent on a healthy planet,” he said.
“And the one thing we can all do is to stop waste. Don’t waste food. Don’t waste power. They are precious and we can’t live without them. We are all consumers of these things and we must act responsibly,” the 92-year-old stated, adding that, “perhaps by doing that, we can undo the damage that we’re doing.”
Attenborough’s latest documentary series “Our Planet” showcases the wonders and vulnerabilities of the natural world and above all, “reminds us we’re all on one team,” the series’ trailer says. The Netflix hit made viewers emotional, to say the least, particularly when watching scenes of animals like walruses and flamingo chicks struggling and dying due to environmental problems, like melting ice. Digital Spy said the footage is “capable of both breaking your heart and also warming your soul.”
During the Radio Times interview, Attenborough was questioned about whether people should reduce their meat intake. An increasing amount of research has suggested that meat production is only worsening our planet’s already dismal state. Attenborough replied, “Well, we can’t go on eating meat at the rate we have been.”
The recent interview mirrors similar comments made by the broadcaster late last year. In a video, Attenborough “warned” that “we need to start making serious changes in order to combat climate change,” Sky News reported.
Attenborough commented that those in “the comfortable west” – and especially people in wealthier parts – are often untouched by the effects of global warming, caused by a number of industries including animal agriculture. “We may well say… ‘well it doesn’t really matter whether we go on eating meat, because we’re not affected,’” Attenborough commented.
“But in fact, it does matter because it matters to the whole world. And the first people to feel the consequences are, of course, the poor. Those at the bottom of the heap. Those that are really vulnerable to what is happening in the climate,” he continued. Notably, a study published in October found that those with a lower income were more likely to be concerned about climate change.
“[T]he whole world together should actually act on their behalf,” Attenborough stated. “We have so much knowledge, we have so much skill, we have so much ingenuity. Of course, we can do something about [climate change]. The question is how much. And we ought to set our sights high and go for the best,” Attenborough said in the video. He added that humankind should use its “passion” to get out of “this mess.”
Does David Attenborough Eat Meat?
In late 2017, Attenborough revealed he had stopped eating meat, calling animal farming practices “depressing.”
In the recent Radio Times interview, the natural historian admitted that whilst his transition toward plant-based foods has been imperfect, it is important to make the change. “I haven’t been a doctrinaire vegetarian or vegan, but I no longer have the same appetite for meat. Why? I’m not sure. I think subconsciously maybe it’s because of the state of the planet,” he said.
The television host added that moving away from meat hasn’t made him feel “deprived in any way or that it’s cost me all that much.”
Is Meat Bad for the Environment?
More than ever, experts are pointing to animal agriculture as one of the leading causes of a myriad of environmental issues. Meat, in particular, is said to be worse for the planet than the oil industry.
In September, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) spoke about how our food system – specifically, meat and other animal products – is impacting the planet. “Our use of animals as a food-production technology has brought us to the verge of catastrophe,” the UN agency said. It also named meat “the world’s most urgent problem,” especially in the realms of climate change.
What Is Climate Change?
Climate change is one of the planet’s most pressing issues. It defines the change in global and regional climates, largely caused by upped levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Climate change leads to melting glaciers and rising sea levels, extreme heat, floods, heavier rainstorms, more frequent droughts, hurricanes, and poverty, according to The Guardian.
At various points during its 4.54 billion-year life, the planet has experienced climate change, but not in this way. Modern day climate change and global warming is largely caused by human activities. According to NOAA Climate.gov, natural factors would have actually caused a slight cooling of the Earth’s surface temperature over the last five years if humans had not interfered. Global warming today is also occurring much faster than previous warming temperatures, the website said. “The current increase in global average temperature appears to be occurring much faster than at any point since modern civilization and agriculture developed in the past 11,000 years or so—and probably faster than any interglacial warm periods over the last million years,” NOAA Climate.gov wrote.
The issue of climate change is not just severe but time-sensitive, too. A report released last year by several of the world’s leading authorities stated that humankind has just 12 years to prevent a climate change crisis; the report said that human-caused carbon dioxide emissions must drop by 45 percent before 2030 in order to avoid major environmental disasters.
One effort by governments to achieve this goal is the Paris Agreement, a pact within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that focuses on what needs to be done to avoid and manage climate change, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to new climates, and handing out financial assistance to developing countries suffering at the hands of global warming.
The agreement, which includes 197 countries, has a long-term goal of keeping the global average temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. It also strives to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C, which is when the effects of climate change would be much more distinct.
Climate Change and Diet
When discussing climate change, many blame oil companies, car manufacturers, and major airlines. However, a growing bank of research is uncovering the major influence of food production on climate change. Studies have found that animal agriculture creates more greenhouse gas emissions than every mode of transport on earth put together. UNEP said in a statement, “The greenhouse gas footprint of animal agriculture rivals that that of every car, truck, bus, ship, airplane, and rocket ship combined.” The organization added, “There is no pathway to achieve the Paris climate objectives without a massive decrease in the scale of animal agriculture.”
In late 2017, researchers looked at how much carbon pollution is generated during the production of different foods, finding that animal products are notably worse for the planet than plant-based foods. The findings showed that 74 grams of carbon dioxide is discharged to make cheese and 52 grams is emitted for chicken. Beef is the worst offender, producing 330 grams of carbon to make a single serving of meat. “That’s like driving a car three miles,” said researcher M. Sanjayan. To produce plant-based foods like beans and lentils, 1.9 grams and 2 grams of carbon respectively is generated. “We’re probably eating too much meat… Vegan is the way to go for the least impact on the planet,” Sanjayan said.
Postdoctoral researcher Maya Almaraz commented, “A lot of people feel really helpless when it comes to climate change, like they can’t make a difference. And what our research is showing is that your personal decisions really can have a big impact.”
A separate study from last year found that a healthy plant-based diet can reduce one’s environmental impact by 42 to 84 percent more than meat can. This includes factors like climate change, land use, water depletion, and marine water eutrophication.
Across the world, people are being urged to shift their eating habits for the good of planet Earth. The Netherlands’ main strategic advisory board recommended that the nation decrease its livestock population and implement new food policies that promote plant-based protein. A recent study found that if Germany halved its meat consumption, it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 32 percent. In the UK, more than half (57 percent) of people want to stop eating meat to save the planet.
How Does Meat Impact the Planet Besides Climate Change?
Meat’s impact on earth goes further than climate change. According to environment experts, it’s a leading cause to a host of planetary problems.
Compared to vegan diets, meat-based diets use vast amounts of water, which is notable when considering recent reports stating that England will run out of water within 25 years. Taking heed of this information, the country’s Environment Agency is encouraging people to take action and not waste water. According to Water Calculator, the biggest portion of an individual’s water footprint comes from their diet. “In order to lower water footprints, there’s no better place for a person to start than taking a closer look at their food choices,” the website says.
“Beef has a particularly high water footprint at about 1,800 gallons per pound, while pork follows at 578 gallons and chicken with 468 gallons,” it explains, adding that on average, the water footprint of a vegan or vegetarian is half of that of a meat-eater.
Other research that compared meat, pescatarian, and vegetarian diets also found that diets rich in plant-based foods carry the smallest water footprint. A vegan diet uses five times less water than a meat-centric one, the research said.
Animal agriculture is also a leading contributor to land use. To better understand farming’s impact on the planet, researchers at the University of Oxford analyzed 40,000 farms in 119 countries. The study found that a vast majority of the Earth’s farmland is used to rear livestock. Beef production, in particular, uses 36 times more land than the production of plant-based foods like peas – it also generates six times more greenhouse gas emissions. The study suggested that if everyone ditched beef in favor of vegan foods, land use would drop by 75 percent.
Deforestation is another major issue linked to livestock. “Cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest,” writes environmental news website Mongabay about the world’s largest tropical rainforest. “In Brazil, this has been the case since at least the 1970s: government figures attributed 38 percent of deforestation from 1966-1975 to large-scale cattle ranching. Today the figure in Brazil is closer to 70 percent.”
In October 2017, it was reported that humanity’s appetite for animal protein could be driving various animal species to extinction. The World Wildlife Foundation reported that producing forage crops for livestock puts “enormous strain on our natural resources and is a driving force behind wide-scale biodiversity loss.” In the UK alone, humankind’s eating habits are directly connected to the extinction of 33 species.
Last year, the largest-ever food production analysis was conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford. It found that when considering greenhouse gas emissions, global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use, a “vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”