It's no news to vegans that animal farming is killing the planet. The methane from farm animals' digestive systems is thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the planet, and with 50% more ruminant animals than there were fifty years ago mass farming for meat is a serious environmental menace.
But now a group of prominent scientists have published an article in the Nature Climate Change journal calling for governments to step in and tackle the problem.
Seeking an economic solution
The paper presents the hefty evidence that farming for meat is contributing to global warming. It also sets out to discuss solutions, and to address the need for political action.
The scientists suggest a tax or emission trading scheme on meat products, such as have long been suggested for tackling other causes of polution. They point out that, in the absence of a massive movement towards change in our diets, a mechanism is needed to reduce meat consumption. And raising prices, they say, is a way to deal with this.
Do we need this intervention?
As a vegetarian I'm reticent about any measure that might seem like enforcing my lifestyle on others. On an individual level I feel uncomfortable with pressuring people to change their diet rather than persuading them through the benefits.
But the fact is that such interventions are sometimes necessary. A free market is not a neutral mechanism. It steers businesses towards putting profit before everything else, and individuals towards putting themselves before the wider good. Like workplace targets, taxes can change people's behaviour, and once something is in their economic interest their beliefs will sometimes follow.
Left to their own devices, many people will change diet far too late to save the planet. Maybe this more nuanced approach to government intervention - not telling people what to eat, but giving them a motive to change - could be what we need.
Of course the meat producing industry has immediately raised objections. And of course many of them are flawed.
They object that such a scheme would raise consumer prices, when that is the whole point of the scheme. Those price changes are meant to change behaviour.
They point out that animals are a natural way of turning grass into protein to eat, ignoring the hugely unnatural circumstances in which those animals are raised and the fact that the grass they eat was planted there by humans.
They point out that meat livestock have been used to manage the countryside for centuries. Very true, but the same could have been said of Medieval serfdom, while battery farming of chickens has been around for decades. 'We've always done it this way' is no defence when a better alternative is found.
Governments are unlikely to raise taxes on meat yet. But the more scientists step forward to show the predicament that we're in, the more likely we are to see such a change.
Photo by Wendy Piersall via Flickr creative commons