Ethical Eating – The Climate

We’ve come to the last of my three considerations for ethical eating, eating with a climate conscious. Much as we have been discovering throughout this set of themed posts, there is no ‘easy’ answer to this. The climate is a complex system that is definitely heating up, but the best way to mitigate these changes is not so obvious.

It’s common to hear about two main challenges here: the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that come from our agriculture, and the GHG emissions that come from our food transport.

Agricultural GHGs

This has been a huge topic within agricultural science lately, and it never fails to make people giggle because it’s all about farts and burps, and as someone who has regularly been farted and burped on by cattle in my life, I’m aware of their abilities in this area. There’s a fairly old (2007!) article about this in the Guardian which I think lays out the issues well, and then almost the exact same article was run in 2010.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of United Nations, worldwide, the agricultural sector accounts for 18% of our global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO). This is unequally split between methane emissions (35% of global emissions), CO2 (only 9% of global emissions) and Nitrous Oxide (a whopping 65% of global emissions). Check out their comprehensive infographic here.

The methane comes mostly from the digestive process of our livestock (from 2001-2010 they emitted 40% of the agricultural GHGs) and this is what the Guardian articles were getting at when suggesting we should eat less animal products. This is not just meat, but dairy products are a big emitter here. (Seems like dairy just can’t catch a break, and seeing as it certainly makes me emit methane . . . well, less said about that the better I suppose).

There are attempts to mitigate livestock emissions, most often through changing their diet (Boadi, 2004; Beuchemin et al 2007; Several PhDs I know), as the fermentation process inside the gut which produces methane is heavily influenced by the microbiota in there too.

De Vries & De Boer (2009) reviewed the entire life cycle of various products and ranked the production of 1kg of each animal product in terms of their global warming potential. Their ranks end up being:

  • Beef, most global warming potential
  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Milk, least global warming potential

However, they are quick to point out the difficulty of comparing all these different life cycles. All the same it’s very convincing evidence that at the very least we need to be drastically reducing our meat consumption.

But what about other produce . . .

Food Miles

Weber & Matthews (2008) have an open access paper looking again at the life cycles of food, but they also investigated transport. Their abstract is really good from a science communication point of view, finishing with a succinct and relateable statement that even non-experts can understand:

Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

How can this be the case? Well as the paper details, transport is only a small part of the overall chain. Edward-Jones et al (2008) have a critical review of the ‘buy local’ ethos and point out that without taking into account the whole life cycle (for which information can be limited), you can’t comment on whether local grown is better (in GHG terms) than imported food. But can it really be better for my Braeburn apples to come from New Zealand than England? Gonzalez et al (2011) conducted a study in Sweden investigating this and the culprit is the amount of heat these non-seasonal and non-native products need to grow. Better to grow them in season in their native ranges and fly them over.

Eating Ethically

With all of these posts I think there’s a common theme, which isn’t going to surprise anyone. We need to eat less meat, waste less food, and buy from sustainable sources. The ethics of buying from the right communities is the part that I find the most difficult, but I also know I lack the food-based skills I need to waste less food.

So here are some resources to get me, and maybe you, started:

Have you got any others I should know about?

Ethical Eating Month – Introduction

For someone who works in an agricultural college, I struggle with how to eat ethically. As we know, ethics are a personal thing, and my ethics may not be yours. My version of ethical eating is one that provides a good quality of life for the animals I eat, provides a good industry and quality of life for the people involved in the food chain, and minimises my carbon footprint.

So how do I try and eat ethically with these three goals? Well it’s surprisingly hard. In part this is because I am a deeply lazy person and the lure of pre-processed and delightfully packaged meals is hugely appealing, even if it as detrimental to my waistline as it is my world. In part, it’s because I’m also a hedonist (and I believe most people are). I don’t derive much joy from cooking and would rather skip the process entirely, and I get a lot of joy from the taste and smell and process of eating meat.  And in part because I’m a single person household, preparing food ahead of time is not always easy, and I do end up wasting food.

I’m an awful person.

You might have seen in the news further discussion of the price of milk in the UK, especially as Morrison’s has announced they will sell a milk brand ‘for farmers‘, that will pay them what the milk is worth. There was also Monbiot’s latest Guardian column about the difficulty of treating the obesity epidemic. I thought there was a curious parallel in these two stories. In the first, Sean Rickard, former National Farmer’s Union chief economist said:

“I think it’s unrealistic for anyone [receiving £28,000 per annum from the tax payer] to expect us just to pay them whatever price they think is needed to cover their cost of production.”

In the second, after Monbiot details the scientific evidence behind why obesity is so difficult to control, Guardian commenter ScottMa says:

“But for the majority it is entirely controllable. <ore [sic] difficult for some than others due to genes, maybe, but by no means impossible.

Monbiot has just absolved the overweight without a medical cause of all responsibility for their situation. Why does the Left have such a problem with that concept? Always someone else’s fault, everyone’s a victim.”


I have got to stop reading Guardian comments. But I think both of these comments share a few elements. Firstly, a great lack of sympathy for the people actually affected by the problems, and secondly, that food really does go hand in hand with opinion.

So many of us have been lectured at by bystanders, well-meaning family members, that one person in work, that we instinctively get riled about food discussions. Just this week I was saying that the ‘One Hour After a Coke’ Infographic that was going around had me rabidly proclaiming Coke as a health drink before I checked myself. We just don’t like being told about food.

I’m not going to tell you about food, but I am going to devote this month to the ethics of my eating, and giving myself time to refresh my understanding of my evidence. Welcome then to Ethical Eating Month, and I hope I don’t enrage you as much as food posts enrage me . . . .

Bon appetit!

When Bill Gates Pops Round For Tea

This post was going to be different, but I can’t resist sharing this story.

On Tuesday morning we received the usual “VIP Guest is coming round, make sure the place is clean” email, and summarily ignored it as we usually do. The gossip going round was that it was someone from the Gates Foundation.

So at lunch time, when these two maroon cars pull up outside the front door and a very recognisable gentleman walks through door accompanied by a flurry of dining researchers suddenly leaping to update Facebook/Twitter/Reddit/etc.

It was only Bill Gates popping round for coffee.

Oor Billy, as his good friends at the Easter Bush Research Consortium passed within ten feet of me, and then I possibly hung around outside the board room while he listened to the important people talk. The Gates Foundation is currently very interested in research, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where we have a lot of research links. They’re currently funding through the Program for Emerging Agricultural Research Leaders (PEARL) grant, the final proposals for which go in November. He visited our beef farm which is a world class methane emission centre, and while we were all greatly tempted to shoulder our way in there with some animal welfare grant proposals, the body guards were quite formidable. I still see this as a fabulous opportunity for animal welfare research, we’re so integrated, not only within SRUC, but the Easter Bush Research Consortium as a whole, that no one discipline of agricultural research is separated from the rest. While we have a lot of inter-team friendly ribbing, I don’t think we could make half the advances in animal welfare we have without the input from both the farming systems teams and the animal breeding teams.

The big take home story from this (aside from the unbelievably awesome fact that I was within ten feet of Bill Gates, the man whose hand has guided this century) is that agricultural research is earning the respect and serious funding it deserves.

It’s not so long ago that agricultural research was thought of as a ‘finished science’, that we knew everything, and there was no funding left there. My colleagues still clearly remember this. And now people are realising how we need to invest in agriculture to create a sustainable future. This is why both us at SRUC and the University of Edinburgh are interested in moving forward with closer relations, it’s why we’re taking part in international projects like the MOOC.

Overall, yesterday was an exciting day for us. And I’m definitely going to be exaggerating how close I was to Bill Gates when I’m telling this story in the pub!