The Netherlands has the densest livestock population in Europe. The immense environmental impact of this was already made clear by the statistics on manure production: 70 billion per year, or 4000 kg per Dutchman. What is far less well known is the environmental impact of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the livestock industry. According to calculations from the Centre for Agriculture and Environment (CLM), a cow annually produces just as many greenhouse gas emissions as 4.5 cars, or driving 70.000 kilometres. This is why the Nicolaas G. Pierson Foundation, in collaboration with the Free University Amsterdam, conducted research to explore the relationship between meat consumption and the emission of greenhouse gasses. The results of this research were today presented in the documentary Meat the Truth.
Following An Inconvenient Truth many Dutch people pointed their fingers at cars and light bulbs as the main culprits for global warming. Indeed, the cabinet even briefly considered a ban on the sake of traditional light bulbs. However, there is a far more important cause of global warming: meat consumption.
Eating meat produces a net contribution of 1400 kg to the emission of CO2 per Dutch citizen; that is 22.4 megatons for all Dutch people. This is the equivalent of driving 140 billion kilometres in a car. Meat consumption and car use create a comparable amount of climate damage in our country. This is why it is more than justified to question why the cabinet heavily devotes itself to climate protection by levying kilometre charges, promoting the use of low-energy light bulbs and energy efficient apparatus, but appears to have completely ignored the issue of meat consumption. A reduction in meat consumption can also produce great results in the fight against deforestation, water shortages, unequal food distribution and the wastage of plant-based proteins by first feeding them to animals. A tax on steak would, for example, have a greater impact on the environment than levying kilometre charges on car owners.
Given the high social costs that are associated with the production of meat, it is incredible that meat is still ignored when it comes to the issue of sustainable production and consumption. Meat continues to fall under the low VAT tariff and the pollution costs of meat production are still passed on to society. The costs of the pollution of drinking water as a result of excessive fertiliser use amount to tens of millions, while the ammonia pollution caused by intensive livestock farming costs society hundreds of millions of euros each year. What is more, the polluters in the sector are subsidised, for example, through export subsidies for pork. Apparently the general adage ‘the polluter pays’, which is used for other sectors, does not apply to them.
Agriculture Minister Gerda Verburg responded rather derisively to parliamentary proposals to stimulate a meat-free day through a government campaign ‘donderdag zonderdag’ (literally: Thursdays, a day without). While, during the last government, her party colleague Pieter van Geel took the standpoint that meat is the most environmentally damaging part of our diet. Meat consumption and the environmental pollution with which it is associated warrants serious attention from a government that professes to want to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses.
When it becomes clear that if everyone did not eat meat for just one day more often, that this would be enough to achieve the climate goals that have been set for private households (a reduction of 3.2 megatons a year), then there is a fantastic opportunity to create an inspirational governmental campaign. Just one day without meat would save twice as many greenhouse gas emissions as would be realised by replacing all light bulbs with low-energy ones.
If people dared to raise their level of ambition just a little to eat no meat for two days a week, then this would save just as much as if the entire population switched to using a more energy-efficient refrigerator and freezer, an efficient washing machine, an efficient dishwasher, an efficient tumble-dryer, installing double-glazing in all homes, everyone using a high efficiency condensing boiler and the insulation of the facades of all Dutch homes: in total 6.25 megatons. Two meat-free days a week could thus create a saving of 6.4 megatons! If we served a meat-free meal three days a week could realise a saving equivalent to taking 3 million cars off the road. At four days without meat we could reach an equivalent of the electricity use of all households (14 megatons) and for six meat-free days we could attain the equivalent to a completely car-free Netherlands (18 megatons).
Gains can also be made in other areas. According to the World Watch Institute, the production of just one kilo of red meat uses 100,000 litres of water. That is just as much water as is needed to shower daily for two years. The use of land for the production of animal proteins is roughly 10 times as great as for the production of plant-based proteins. This is not to mention the health aspects of eating meat, the dangers of zoonotic diseases and the conditions under which animals are forced to live in the intensive livestock sector.
Environment Minister Jacqueline Cramer’s climate policy sets the goal of reducing half of the greenhouse gas emissions that are caused by the livestock industry. Yet solutions are sought in treating the symptoms, rather than the root of the problem. Low-emissions stalls are being developed to capture the methane; the upshot being that more cattle will be permanently kept indoors. A pill as big as a man’s fist is also being developed to reduce the methane belches and farts of cattle. It would seem more obvious to simply reduce the number of animals in the Netherlands to a level that actually does justice to the capacity of both the environment and climate. However, the reduction of the livestock population still seems to be a taboo subject.
In order to effectively tackle the climate problem, a reduction in the consumption of animal proteins will be unavoidable. To a large extent, the solution to the climate problem can be found on our very own plates. What we dish up can make a real contribution. Meat is wasted energy!
Kim van der Leeuw is a researcher at the Institute for Environmental Studies, Free University Amsterdam and Karen Soeters is the director of the Nicolaas. G. Pierson Foundation and project manager for the documentary Meat the Truth.
Note: This article converts all greenhouse gasses into CO2 equivalents.