Vegetarianism has made significant inroads into mainstream British culture. Issues relating to animal welfare have long played a part in the social and political fabric of the United Kingdom. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or RSPCA, dates back as far as 1824. English Romantics Percy and Mary Shelley were vegetarians and naturalists during the early 19th century, demonstrating a link between the Pythagorean diet – as it was known for centuries throughout Europe – and early environmentalism. Even further back – in 1516 – Sir Thomas More wrote and published Utopia, an early novel describing a society whose religion prohibits the killing of animals for reasons of compassion. Utopia is also notable for what could be considered its ‘ecological’ logic, in that it criticizes the practice of raising animals for flesh and wool rather than utilizing the same land for cultivation and human habitation.

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward to London, October 2009. Lord Stern of Brentford is IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government and Chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics as well as a former government advisor. He is quoted in the October 26 edition of the Guardian as stating that ‘Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.’

Put this on top of the fact that British Farming minister Jim Fitzpatrick is also a vegetarian, as is the Environment Secretary Hilary Ben. It seems that those in the U.K. government whose specific job it is to know about environmental issues, are either choosing a vegetarian diet or waking up to the fact that the meat industry is a massive contributor to climate change. Lord Stern himself was the author of the ‘Stern Review’, a report from the U.K. Office of Climate Change, which claims that countries must spend 1% of their GDP to stop greenhouse gasses. Stern believes that once people make the connection between climate change and meat eating, that it will become far less socially acceptable, as drink-driving has. Livestock farming produces 9% of the worlds CO2, 65% of human-related nitrous oxide and 37% of methane emissions. Methane is a 23 times more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide is 300 times as bad.

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Naturally, the meat industry has been strongly critical of Lord Stern’s statements. They claim they are making efforts to fight climate change, such as looking into better feeding practices. It is true that livestock farming is not as environmentally harmful in the U.K. as it is in countries like the U.S. and Brazil. British cattle are grass-fed and rainforests are not cut down in order to create pastures. It’s also not as simple as a vegetarian diet vs. eating meat. Soy, a popular meat replacement, has its own issues with sustainability, as do fruits and vegetables imported from far off continents. But adopting a vegetarian diet is an uncomplicated way of reducing your individual carbon footprint, and in case you haven’t noticed, people generally like to keep things simple when it comes to climate change.

Additional resources:
The Argument for Eating Less Meat
The Times – Climate chief Lord Stern: give up meat to save the planet
BBC – Ethics of Eating Meat
Spencer, Colin, Vegetarianism: A History, London, Grub Street, 2000