Sustainable food | Less meat and diary

According to figures from the United Nations, animal farming globally causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the cars, lorries and planes in the world put together, and the effect is increasing (1). The reasons for this are associated with several factors:

  • Large amounts of animal feed need to be produced to make relatively small amounts of meat or milk – around 7kg of grain for 1kg of beef; 4kg of grain for 1kg of pork; 2kg of grain for 1kg of poultry. 
  • Nitrogen fertilisers are used to produce animal feed, resulting in energy use and emissions of, among others, greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. [see the implications of nitrous oxide on climate change here and here]
  • Livestock (particularly cows and sheep) emits high levels of methane from their digestive systems.
  • Natural ‘carbon sinks’ such as forests, that can absorb carbon dioxide, are destroyed to make way for animal grazing, or crops for animal feed.
  • Animals, their feed and the resulting animal products are usually transported, often over large distances, and usually in energy-intensive refrigerated conditions.
  • The demand for meat and dairy products is increasing, especially in booming Eastern economies, shifting from traditional diets to a more Western pattern of consumption.

Much of the meat on sale in the UK is produced intensively, with little or no regard for animal welfare. The most frequent forms of poor practice include:

  • Overstocking, which can encourage disease to develop and spread. Antibiotics are frequently used to counter this problem, which leads to their overuse as bacteria become resistant to them. Rearing animals in smaller groups would be a more sustainable way to avoid the problem in the first place. Overstocking can result in animals not having enough space to move around.

Meat and health

It is not the place to talk about the influence of meat on our health, however a brief discussion is provided. Although we do not need meat in our diets, eating small amounts is not a health problem, and many people enjoy it. However, there is growing evidence of a link between consumption of red and processed meats and certain types of cancer, hence the long-standing recommendation from the Department of Health that ‘lower consumption of red and processed meat would probably reduce the risk of colorectal cancer‘ and that ‘individuals’ consumption of red and processed meat should not rise…from around 90g/day cooked weight‘. A recent report published by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) (3) is even more stringent, reducing the recommended daily amount of red meat to around 70g a day, or less than 500g per week, and also noting that very little, if any, processed meat should be eaten.

Meat and some dairy products, and particularly meat products like sausages, pies and breaded products, also tend to be high in fat and saturated fat and are often high in salt. High fat consumption is linked to increased risk of obesity, heart disease and strokes. Even popular white meats such as poultry, often chosen for their apparent health benefits, have been found to be fattier than in the past due to methods of production and processing.

On a more positive note, there is plenty of scientific evidence that eating a greater proportion of foods of plant origin (fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds and wholegrain foods) can reduce the risks of serious diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers. Foods of plant origin tend to be naturally low in fat and salt and also contain high levels of other useful nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fibre.

What can we do about it?

  1. Eat less meat. The conclusion is that we should all eat less meat (especially red meat and processed meat) and fewer products of animal origin, both to reduce significantly our effects on the environment, and to improve our health. While the number of vegetarians in the UK has remained relatively stable over recent years, evidence suggests that more and more people are trying to eat less meat.
  2. Try out more vegetarian options with higher levels of fruit, vegetable and wholegrain ingredients, and reduced amounts of fat and animal products. You can start with a meat-free day, and build up to more veggie meals from there for example.
  3. Buy the best. Use the money you saved from cutting back on the amount of meat you use to buy local or British meat produced to high environmental and animal welfare standards [for example organic or free range].

Following this little discussion what would you think about going MEAT FREE for a day?! Could we suggest a meat free monday from next week at DMU? 

Who is gonna join me in this experiment? Share your meals with me! On Twitter or Facebook

I actually am trying to be vegetarian, or better pescatarian, which means I eat fish once or twice a week, but I don’t eat meat of any type. Therefore, because we all need to make an effort I’ll try to be VEGAN, which means I am not going to eat any food of animal origin [no eggs, milk, yogurt, or cheese….this is going to be though!] today!

More readings about how eating less meat can have an impact on you and the environment:


  1. FAO, 2007, Global warming: Climate change and farm animal welfare. Executive summary.
  2. Sustain, Eat well and save the planet! A guide for consumers on how to eat greener, healthier and more ethical food
  3. World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF, 2007). Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Washington DC.


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