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Expert Opinions

Should we all stop eating meat?

Prof. Mark Sutton

Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK

Co-Chair of the UNECE Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen (TFRN)

Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI)

Livestock-farming practices are increasingly coming under scrutiny from all angles—central among these being the impact of livestock on the environment. Two recent reports* highlight the massive nitrogen threats of livestock farming to the environment, including air, soil and water pollution, climate change and biodiversity.

Perhaps one of the most startling figures is that globally 80% of nitrogen harvested in agricultural crops goes to feed livestock. Only 20% goes to feed people directly. The figures are even more extreme for Europe:  at 85% and 15%.  At the same time, dietary guidelines indicate that Europeans are eating 70% more protein than they need for a healthy diet. 

The bottom line is that many are enjoying luxury levels of meat and dairy consumption, contributing to environmental pollution at local, regional and global scales.  If you add this to the fact that 80% of nitrogen fertilizers are lost to the environment, you start to see how inefficient the global food system is.

So what can we do?

First, we can take action to improve the technical efficiency of nitrogen use. Here, reducing emissions of ammonia and nitrous oxide to air and nitrates to water reduces pollution, improves production efficiency, thereby making a demonstrable contribution to the Green Economy. This complements reductions in nitrogen oxide emissions from combustion activities, which are the traditional focus in the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.

Secondly, there needs to be a much stronger focus on behavioural change to move away from patterns of excessive consumption. This will be a major factor in successfully improving air and water pollution, and, if we’re serious about developing the Green Economy, we cannot ignore it.

So should we all stop eating meat?

Without any doubt, if everyone were to become vegetarian, the impact of humans on the environment would be massively reduced. To my mind, however, recommending this lifestyle goes one step too far. The choices that determine diet are based on many factors, including ethical and religious considerations.  Also, many people tend to respond negatively to the suggestion of such a major change and end up rejecting it altogether. 

I believe we need to find a middle path, where citizens see they’re making a difference and where they’re happy to engage. This required a new word to help describe this "mid-level of ambition".  What I was looking for was something that indicated a half-way point between modern western consumption and being vegetarian.

With this was born the word "demitarian" (i.e. “demi”tarian), the choice to consume half the amount of meat compared with the normal local situation in developed countries.  You can read more about the idea in the Barsac Declaration  www.nine-esf.org/Barsac-text, where scientists have considered what steps they themselves can take.   

The “demi” diet offers a great hook to explain more about our work—including the technical aspects of how to reduce nitrogen losses from agriculture. But even more, we found that many people can easily identify with the demitarian approach.  As discussions on food traceability (horse meat), dietary health and environment come together, people in developed countries are beginning to re-evaluate their diets.  Now’s the ideal time to emphasize that a more modest consumption of animal products will have major environmental benefits, and contribute substantially to global food security.


Read more about what UNECE does:

*European Nitrogen Assessment  www.nine-esf.org/ENA   and Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution