(Updated November 19, 2019) The deteriorating state of the planet has caused Sir David Attenborough to lose his appetite for meat.
“I can’t remember the last time I had a piece of red meat,” he said in a Sunday interview with BBC one.
He continued: “I can’t tell you why. I suddenly realised I hadn’t been eating red meat for a long time. I’ve just gone off it. I’m not claiming any moral virtue at this point – I’m just saying I don’t want to eat any red meat anymore.”
This isn’t the first time the popular naturalist has spoken about his diet. “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 in an interview with Radio Times earlier this year.
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.”
According to Attenborough “the comfortable west” – is still largely untouched by the effects of global warming. “We may well say… ‘well it doesn’t really matter whether we go on eating meat, because we’re not affected,’” Attenborough commented.
In late 2017, Attenborough revealed he had stopped eating meat, calling animal farming practices “depressing.”
In the Radio Times interview, the natural historian said that while it may not be easy, 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.
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.
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 to achieve this goal is the Paris Agreement. The agreement now includes 197 countries. It 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 become much more distinct.
Diet’s Impact on the Planet
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. Cheesemaking produces more than 74 grams of carbon dioxide. Chicken produces more than 52 grams. 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. Plant-based foods like beans and lentils produce 1.9 grams and 2 grams of carbon respectively. “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.”
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.
Meat and GHG Emissions
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. The site notes the average 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. Beef uses 36 times more land than 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. Forage crops grown for livestock puts “enormous strain on our natural resources and is a driving force behind wide-scale biodiversity loss,” according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Last year, the largest-ever food production analysis was conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford. The study noted that a “vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”