The planetary crisis is on our plates: Mark Lynas on how we must revolutionise our eating, as well as our farming


Strong piece from the “eco-modernist” writer Mark Lynas for CNN about “the planet on our plate”.

He begins with a litany of facts about how humans’ appetites affect the landmass of the earth:

  • Already 72% of the global ice-free land surface is dedicated to supporting our species

  • Between a quarter and a third of the entire 'net primary production' of the planet is consumed by humans..

  • 22% of greenhouse gas emissions arise from agriculture, forestry and other land use.

  • Within another 30 years the global human population will exceed 9 billion people…

  • …So we will have to increase food production by at least another 70% in order to stave off mass famine

The rest of Lynas’s piece is a confident set of prescriptions, sometimes based on controversial scientific positions. For example, Lynas believes that developing world famers “need better seeds, including so-called 'GMOs' that can be resistant to pests, require less water and be more resilient to the changing climate”.

What this implies is that the “ill-conceived and destructive blanket opposition to genetic engineering” must be suspended by environmental groups. (We’d like to hear our permaculture readers on this - comments below!).

But it’s hard to argue with the sweep of Lynas’s analysis:

The majority of the world's land is used not to feed humans directly but to support livestock. Over-consumption of meat is unhealthy, and also an environmental disaster: rainforests are cleared in Brazil both to provide pasture for beef cattle, but also to grow soya crops for export to markets like Europe where they are mostly used in animal feed.

Ruminants like sheep and cattle do not only degrade land directly through over-grazing and pollution from manure, they also release enormous quantities of methane, a global warming gas thirty times as powerful as carbon dioxide.

For Western consumers, giving up steak and lamb is arguably the single most important personal contribution to tackling both the climate and biodiversity crises. A largely vegetarian—or better still, vegan—planet would be able to dramatically reduce agriculture, sparing more land for nature.

However, the farming lobbies are powerful. In Europe, farmers are supported by subsidies, without which much livestock production would already be uneconomic. Europeans pay through taxes to support unnecessary land destruction by agriculture—hardly a sensible policy.

…Don't imagine that locally-produced, grass-fed beef is a better bet -- low-intensity agriculture uses very large areas of land to produce comparatively little food. For example, lamb production in the UK ecologically impoverishes virtually the entire uplands for the sake of a trivial contribution to Britain's food security.

…It is possible to trace a positive vision given what the science now says, but this will require dramatic lifestyle changes for us and an entirely different approach to producing food. In short, we must produce much more for a growing population while reducing human domination of the planet's land surface and allowing ravaged ecosystems to recover.

To do that we have to accustom ourselves to using less livestock products, and to accepting new technologies—your new lab-originated plant-based burger using genetically engineered ingredients may not 'feel' as authentic and traditional as a grass-fed beef burger but it is a much better option for the planet.

If we can spare a few million square kilometres of land from the twin curses of over-grazing and the plough, we can even begin to rewild it, allowing ecosystems to rebuild themselves naturally and so sequester billions of tonnes of carbon in the process.

More here. In terms of behaviour change around food, it’s worth adding this perspective from the moral philosopher Ingrid Robeyns, writing for CUSP:

Proposals for effective change have to be based on an understanding of people as social and moral beings. We are more likely to change our behaviour if we act in groups, or if we perceive that others approve or disapprove of our behaviour. Social norms are a very important mechanism that steers human behaviour.


Social norms are expectations which we impose on each-other, whereby the violation of that norm leads to strong forms of disapproval; this triggers shame and other forms of unpleasant emotions in the person violating the norms, which explains why most people stick to social norms.

Many forms of ecologically unsustainable behaviour are currently not subject to social norms. There is no widespread social disapproval of the consumption of meat, the excessive use of cars (or fuel-inefficient cars), or flying by airplanes. We regard a family’s investment in solar panels on the roof of their house as a private decision, not a decision that affects all of us.

But norms can change. Take public attitudes towards the desirability of vegetarian food. In the recent past, people requesting vegetarian (let alone vegan) meals were often seen as ‘odd’ or ‘eccentric’. There are still public places where vegetarian meals are not available, yet societal attitudes towards vegetarianism and veganism are shifting quite dramatically.

It is quite possible that a few generations down the line will find it astonishing that our generations felt that eating meat was ethically unproblematic—just like, perhaps, a few generations before us felt that it was OK for parents to smoke in a room where children were present, or even teachers smoking in class.

More here.