Eating Responsibly: How Our Love for Meat is Changing the Fate of Our Planet
Compressed watermelon with cashew ricotta and mint agave syrup. Aquafaba mousse and bell pepper caviar on top of puffed air bread. Discs of crystal-clear lollipops speckled with gold and silver leaf, adorned with edible petals and flavoured with mango and jalapeño essence. If what Hollywood A-listers were supping on at this year’s Oscars Governors Ball—the official after-party of the awards show—is anything to go by, green is the new gold. After all, Forbes and The Economist both pronounced 2019 as the Year of the Vegan.
But that old adage “if you love something, let it go” doesn’t quite apply when it comes to our love for meats. Fed by the ravenous appetite of burgeoning middle classes around the world, global meat production, which stands at almost 350 million tonnes a year as of 2018, is on a constant climb. In 1990, China marginally overtook the US as the top meat producer in the world at almost 30 million tonnes. By 2018, that number has almost tripled to over 88 million tonnes, according to Our World in Data. This growth has contributed to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation to estimate that 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock.
Are meat eaters doomed to be vilified? Would our woke children roll their eyes at every non-vegan festive meal? Instead of being treated to a fine show of tableside service delivered with lots of pomp and ceremony when we order a chateaubriand (a classic French steak dish), would we instead be relegated to a naughty corner, shamed out of sight?
Consumer sentiments are a powerful force and meat producers are already upping their green credentials in response to those concerned about the environmental impact of their dinner. Last year, Arcadian Organic & Natural Meat Co became Australia’s first 100 per cent carbon-neutral business. And last September, one of Australia’s largest and oldest cattle producers North Australian Pastoral Company launched Five Founders, its brand of carbon-neutral-certified beef.
In fact, the Australian beef sector is reportedly pushing for carbon neutrality by 2030. Also in 2019, Maple Leaf Foods, a leading North American producer of meat and plant proteins, became the first major food company in the world to be carbon neutral. The means, by which these companies achieve carbon neutrality, span from adopting new practices such as introducing new feed ingredients that can reduce a cattle’s, uh, enteric methane emissions by about a third, to investing in environmental projects, such as reforesting and solar farms, with the objective of earning carbon offsets to nullify a company’s net environmental impact.
For the Love of Meat
Another new set of players has also entered the meat industry, offering lab-grown meats as the solution of the future. Since Dutch company Mosa Meat unveiled the world’s first cell-based hamburger in 2013, we have seen a global explosion: Israeli’s Future Meat Technologies, US’ Memphis Meats, Netherlands’ Meatable, Spain’s Cubiq Foods and UK’s Higher Steaks—all vying for a slice of the cultured-meat pie predicted to be worth US$214 million by 2025 and a projected US$593 million by 2032, according to a report by market research and consulting firm MarketsandMarkets. And it is fast becoming less science fiction with Future Meat Technologies forecasting that it would bring the price of cultured meat—made from stem cells from animal fat or muscle—from US$800 per kilogram to around US$10 per kilogram by this year.
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All these efforts, for the love of meat. Yet it isn’t just because we cannot deal with the prospect of Christmas tables without a turkey or a Chinese banquet without a suckling pig, or even a hawker centre populated entirely by vegetarian bee hoon stalls. Eliminating meat and animal products from our diet also erases the culinary culture that surrounds it: the art of butchering, carving, deboning, curing, ageing and smoking.
And let’s face it. Is the problem really with agriculture, or is it with human greed? In our demand for more at cheaper prices, we have sidestepped small-scale farmers, who are driven by a passion for quality and guided by generational wisdom on sustainability, and propped the growth of behemoths that are factory farms built by agricultural conglomerates. Eliminating meat from the global population’s diet might seem an appealing solution, given the moralistic, environmental and health arguments for it. But when meat producers are gone, will we then find ourselves contending with carbon emissions of plant-protein factories? And what about the impact of hazardous pesticides liberally sprayed on salad greens? Or the massive proportions of bees dying from the pressures of pollinating almonds for making nut milk?
In her article If You Want to Save the World, Veganism isn’t the Answer written for The Guardian, conservationist Isabella Tree, author of Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, offers clarity: “Unless you’re sourcing your vegan products specifically from organic, ‘no-dig’ systems, you are actively participating in the destruction of soil biota, promoting a system that deprives other species, including small mammals, birds and reptiles, of the conditions for life, and significantly contributing to climate change.
“Our ecology evolved with large herbivores—free-roaming herds of aurochs (the ancestral cow), tarpan (the original horse), elk, bear, bison, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and millions of beavers. They are species whose interactions with the environment sustain and promote life. Using herbivores as part of the farming cycle can go a long way towards making agriculture sustainable.”
Eating responsibly is an exercise that requires us to listen to more than just our guts at mealtimes. But it is a necessary one if we want to continue enjoying the luxury of an omnivorous diet.