Conservative media around the world flipped a collective bird at "smug" vegetarians last week, claiming that a report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund had found that changes to land use meant that a vegetarian diet was more harmful to the environment than eating meat.
The London Times reported that "Becoming a vegetarian can do more harm to the environment than continuing to eat red meat, according to a study of the impacts of meat substitutes such as tofu." The Daily Mail made even more sport out of the study’s findings, announcing that "Meat free diets can be bad for the planet."
Unfortunately plenty of other mainstream media outlets, including the Australian, gleefully picked up this reading. In an I-told-you-so editorial, titled "Tuck in and save the planet", the Australian again ridiculed the idea that eating a lot of meat was a problem: "Now a study for environmental lobbyists WWF, a body not usually noted for its conservative viewpoint, concedes our argument was correct. The study, by Cranfield University, found that turning vegetarian can do more environmental harm than eating red meat."
In fact the study found nothing of the kind.
The WWF’s study was titled How low can we go: An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050. After the reception the study got from the media its authors are not at all pleased at the way some editors have managed to turn their comprehensive research into a green light for business as usual.
"It’s a good example of journalism clearly failing to serve their readers honestly," one of the study’s authors, Dr Donal Murphy-Bokern, told newmatilda.com. "It leaves science in an impossible position."
What the study actually found was in fact very much in line with the broad argument made by environmentalists advocating a reduction in meat consumption. It found that the UK food system directly accounts for one fifth of the UK’s carbon footprint, and that if indirect consequences such as deforestation are taken into account this rises to almost a third. According to the report, emissions from the food system are dominated by the livestock sector, and livestock rearing alone accounts for 57 per cent of agricultural emissions. Not surprisingly, the study found that reducing livestock consumption is the single most effective way of reducing the carbon footprint of the UK food system. UK meat consumption is more than twice the world average, and three times that of developing countries on a per capita basis.
"Removing meat from the diet and replacing it with plant foods with similar protein contents reduces the carbon footprint of diet by one fifth," Dr Murphy-Bokern said. "Removing all animal products removes nearly a third."
Red meat currently produces almost four times the emissions of vegetables and legumes in the UK at 19,400 kilo-tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions in primary production.
That’s what it said, but what came out the end of the media churner was: The emissions involved in producing meat substitutes are quite high, so eating meat is the green choice.
How could this happen?
Certainly, scientific studies are time-consuming to wade through and a busy journalist may make the odd slip-up, but that doesn’t explain how the media’s message differed so greatly from the study’s actual findings or intent.
The media failed to provide context and one would be forgiven for thinking that the study was merely a comparison of the environmental impact of a vegetarian versus an omnivorous diet, rather than a plan for reducing the global impact of the UK’s food system as a whole. Describing the study, as the Times did, as "a study of the impacts of meat substitutes such as tofu" is misleading to say the least.
But to really traduce the study’s purpose, the outlets had to go further and completely distort its findings.
"The Times article ignored the report’s main results and conclusions and focused on a minor part of the study that looked at some potential but unlikely consequences of reducing meat consumption for land use," Dr Murphy-Bokern said.
That was the relatively small part of the study that considered some of the ways the UK might change. Amid the clear message that reducing the reliance on livestock would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the report raised concerns about how the UK’s meat-heavy diet would be substituted if meat consumption was reduced:
"Our analysis indicates that the effect of a reduction in livestock product consumption on arable land use will depend on how consumers compensate for lower intakes of meat, eggs and dairy products. A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu and quorn could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK. In contrast, a broad-based switch to plant based products through simply increasing the intake of cereals and vegetables is more sustainable."
This was a warning that there could be unintended consequences to changes in the food chain if the policies governing it aren’t carefully considered. The study emphasised that more carbohydrates would be a preferable substitution to globally sourced soy-based analogues, which could lead to increased deforestation in countries that produce soy and quorn (also known as mycoprotein, a patented meat substitute made from processed fungus).
It’s a valid point — but a complex one — to note that some livestock can live off pasturelands which are not very suited to crops, making these lands productive for food where they might otherwise not be. The result is that some meat products use less arable land than that used for growing high-protein plant-based alternatives. Fair enough, but in focusing on this, the media missed the point and conveniently ignored the rest of the study.
An honest report of the study would have explained that it identifies food as a significant factor in overall greenhouse gas emissions and outlines the changes needed if the UK is to make a dent in its global greenhouse gas contribution. It also acts as an inventory of emissions from different areas of the food chain and it asks people to consider how their food consumption habits contribute to environmental problems.
"Food is comparable to transport and domestic energy consumption in terms of its role in personal carbon footprints," the report stated.
How low can we go? recommends holistic change to the food system along with changes at the policy level with regard to how food is produced and what is consumed. A reduction by 66 per cent in the amount of dairy and meat consumed in the UK diet is only one part of the study’s recommendations. The study also outlines improvements that can be made through the decarbonisation of energy and improved energy efficiency in agricultural systems, a conversion to organic farming, confining livestock production to land not suitable for other food production and adopting technology that reduces nitrous oxide emissions from soils and methane from farm animals. It finds that all these measures will be important factors in achieving an emissions reduction of 70 per cent by 2050.
You’d think there’d be plenty of interesting headlines in that lot but it seems that rather than reporting the study accurately, what the papers really wanted was a sexy headline that feeds into a growing backlash against environmentalism.
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