Free-Range Meat Can Be Worse for the Planet Than Long-Haul Flights

Written by Katherine Martinko

George Monbiot wades into the meat-and-climate debate by explaining how ‘ethically’ raised meat is actually worse for the planet than those raised in confined spaces. It leaves omnivores in an awkward position.

When Guardian columnist George Monbiot modifies his long-standing “flying is dying” stance to say that something else is even worse for the planet, we should really pay attention. In an article called “Warning: Your festive meal could be more damaging than a long-haul flight,” Monbiot wades into the sticky world of meat production.

He writes: “A kilogram of beef protein reared on a British hill farm can generate the equivalent of 643 kg of carbon dioxide. A kilogram of lamb protein produced in the same place can generate 749 kg. One kilo of protein from either source, in other words, causes more greenhouse gas emissions than a passenger flying from London to New York… You could exchange your flight for an average of 3 kg [6.6 lbs] of lamb protein from hill farms in England and Wales. You’d have to eat 300 kg [660 lbs] of soy protein to create the same impact.”

The uncomfortable essence of his article is that so-called ‘ethical’ meat production – where animals roam the hills and fields freely and have a fairly decent life, aside from the fact that they’re eventually killed for someone’s dinner – is actually much worse for the planet than confined feeding operations, even though a life of confinement is far more unpleasant for the animals themselves.

The problem lies in the fact that grazing animals wreaks environmental havoc, while using vast tracts of land very inefficiently.

“To produce one lamb you need to keep a large area of land bare and fertilised. The animal must roam the hills to find its food, burning more fat and producing more methane than a stalled beast would… Nitrates and phosphates sometimes pour from their paddocks and into the rivers. Unless they are kept at low densities or on well-drained fields, pigs tend to mash the soil: a friend describes some of the farming he’s seen as opencast pig mining.”

This leaves omnivores in an awkward dilemma. Many justify meat consumption by buying free-range animals that have “lived a good life.” But if it’s really so bad for the environment as Monbiot argues, then it’s impossible to continue supporting that industry. On the other hand, I suspect many omnivores (myself included) would never feel comfortable buying meat from animals raised in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), force-fed grain, and given regular doses of antibiotics, no matter how much better for the planet it may be.

Monbiot says he is not anti-farmer, but unable to ignore the facts:

“The Arcadian idyll, a conception of the shepherd’s life (in both Old Testament theology and Greek pastoral poetry) as the seat of innocence and purity, a refuge from the corruption of the city, resonates with us still. But in the midst of a multifaceted crisis – the catastrophic loss of wildlife, devastating but avoidable floods, climate breakdown – entertaining this fantasy looks to me like a great and costly indulgence.”

What should we do? It’s the same old message that TreeHugger has been preaching for years now, but it’s more important than ever. Eat way less meat, or cut it out all together. Monbiot suggests saving the indulgence for festive occasions like Christmas, and then choosing wisely. Yes, it may affect the variety of your diet, but the sacrifice is worth it to preserve the great variety of life.

This post originally appeared on TreeHugger

Photo Credit: Jeremy Noble

117 comments

Jerome S
Jerome S4 months ago

thanks for sharing.

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Jim Ven
Jim Vabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Rosemary H.
Rosemary H1 years ago

Hmm, one of my posts below is incomplete - it's just a quote from the article. ........................................................................................................................................>>To produce one lamb you need to keep a large area of land bare and fertilised. The animal must roam the hills to find its food

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Rosemary H.
Rosemary H1 years ago

The original article appeared in the Guardian, and Treehugger just copied it without checking facts. I've now read the comments and seen how other people have spotted gaps in Monbiot's thinking. Fertiliser all over pastures indeed! Ever since grazing animals evolved, they have had two ways of fertilising pastures themselves! And Monbiot has certainly never heard of conservation grazing, or he would see the gaps in his thinking immediately!

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Rosemary H.
Rosemary H1 years ago

It is often pointed out that free-range animals eventually meet the same end as those from factory farms. I've been reliably told that standards in abattoirs vary, and farmers who care enough to give their animals decent quality of life choose the better abattoirs, giving the animals a quick death with minimum pain and stress beforehand. Of course I hope so! We need to do what we can to tighten standards!

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Rosemary H.
Rosemary H1 years ago

Wouldn't my three posts below read better if we still had the luxury of paragraph breaks?

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Rosemary H.
Rosemary H1 years ago

I want to know how this man arrived at these figures. What is he factoring in?........................ Reason. My late partner won a major prize for an article on hefting sheep - keeping them in one place without physical boundaries. On the strength of this, he won a £10,000 scholarship to produce the first book on hefted sheep published in Britain during the last 50 years. When he went to interview shepherds who were expert at herding sheep in different upland areas, he took me with him. ........................................................................................................................................................ I certainly heard that there were problems if you overstocked the hills with sheep, so these farmers avoided that. I remember especially one whose sheep were hefted in a National Park, where conservation is taken very seriously. ...................................... The farmers attended meetings with the conservation officials, but did they clash? I remember vividly the phrase used: 'A Meeting of Minds'. .......................................................................................................................................

(More)

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Rosemary H.
Rosemary H1 years ago

(Cont)
>>To produce one lamb you need to keep a large area of land bare and fertilised. The animal must roam the hills to find its food

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Rosemary H.
Rosemary H1 years ago

(Cont) …................................................................................................................................................

There is of course one aspect that Monbiot has ignored completely. Conservation grazing. First decide exactly what length of grass is apprpriate in a nature reserve, where rare plants support a range of wildlife native to the area. Then choose a herd of cattle for longer grass and sheep for shorter grass. Rampant weeds are kept down, more desirable natural vegetation and wild flowers flourish, and cattle or sheep are an integral part of it.

The English oak tree supports more wildlife than any other species commonly found here; several hundred species. I'm sure Monbiot would agree that trees help to reduce climate change by using sunlight to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I only have to look out of the window to see where most oaks and other deciduous trees grow – in hedgerows allowed to grow because they separate one grazing field from the next. With crops but no livestock, fields are very much bigger, without the wildlife-friendly hedges and trees. How does Monbiot account for this in his conclusions?

It's obvious that in the future a species with no intention of controlling its global population can't expect to eat meat three times a day (the fortunate ones, that is...) Eating the meat of animals involved in conservation grazing comes in the form of an occasional

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