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

CC BY 2.0. Jeremy Noble

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 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.