One of the best ways of tackling climate change and feeding the growing world population is also one of the simplest
A day would come, Percy Shelley predicted in 1813, when the monopolising eater of animal flesh would no longer destroy his constitution by eating an acre at a meal. He explained: The quantity of nutritious vegetable matter consumed in fattening the carcass of an ox would afford 10 times the sustenance if gathered immediately from the bosom of the earth.
Two hundred years later, mainstream agronomists and dietitians have caught up with the poet. A growing scientific consensus agrees that feeding cereals and beans to animals is an inefficient and extravagant way to produce human food, that there is a limited amount of grazing land, that the world will be hard-pressed to supply a predicted population of 9 billion people with a diet as rich in meat as the industrialised world currently enjoys, and that its not a very healthy diet anyway. On top of this, livestock contribute significantly towards global warming, generating 14.5% of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions, according to one much-quoted estimate from the United Nations.
Now that the problem has been identified, the challenge is to persuade people in wealthy countries to eat less meat. That might seem a tall order, but governments have successfully persuaded people to quit smoking through a combination of public information, regulation and taxation.
So far there has been nothing of this kind from the UK government regarding meat, but information campaigns and initiatives from voluntary organisations ranging from Greenpeace to Paul and Linda McCartneys Meat Free Monday have succeeded in convincing some people to review their meat consumption. So it can be done. In Monkton Wyld Court, the community-run guesthouse in Dorset where I live, the main kitchen is entirely vegetarian, with a separate kitchen in the garden for special occasions.
A growing chorus of voices is now calling for governments to intervene. In November 2015, the Chatham House thinktank published a report proposing that measures such as taxation should be introduced, along with an information campaign. A year later, a team from the Oxford Martin Future of Food Programme at Oxford University totted up the climate benefits from taxing meat, as well as the number of lives that would be saved if people turned to diets with a greater proportion of fruit and vegetables.
Meat taxes have been proposed for other countries including Denmark and Sweden, and in May 2016 the UNs International Resource Panel called for taxation on meat to discourage emerging economies from emulating North American and European diets.