One of my biggest surprises whilst living in Tromsø was not finding out that back in 2008 Norway knighted a penguin to colonel-in-chief of the King's Guard. Instead, it has to do with food. This bastion of Arctic research, which has a front row seat to observe the heating of our planet, seems to be reluctant to ask a particular question and I am left wondering why.
Here it comes: Should we, just maybe, eat a little bit less meat?
In the traditional Norwegian cuisine, vegetarian cooking only happens by accident; when the supplies run out during a snowstorm or after being visited by a polar bear.
This year, a proposal to go vegan in the cantina was turned down before entering the floor at the Tromsø Municipality. Amongst the reactions, the opposition noted that in Northern Norway 'no meat' is not an option." Such a dogged rejection should not be interpreted as an indication of Norwegian stubbornness but simply points out the persistence of traditions.
In Bolivia, for example, asking for a meal without meat can provoke responses ranging from frowned pity to outright contempt. For many of us, a meal without meat is not a meal. Meat is something masculine and strong. A rudimentary cultural sentiment from a time when hunting a buffalo was more than pushing a button. It’s food that will turn you into a warrior, instead of a tofu twat. However, this warrior food contributes to some rather unpleasant problems on our pale blue dot.
Because the meat industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. There it is. Greenhouse gas emissions of the livestock sector are estimated to be 14.5 percent of the global total. That number exceeds the direct emissions of transport. So, if everybody would stop eating meat, it would have a bigger impact than if we would all stop driving our cars.
Cows produce significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide. But that is just the beginning. The extensive use of fertilizers leads to over-fertilization of water, which may trigger algal blooms. This in turn can result in decreased oxygen levels, which might be harmful for fish. We also have pesticides flowing into rivers and affecting water quality.
See also: PM: Norway's cows fart too much
Governments fail to act against logging, which wipes out rich forests to clear pasture for grazing and agriculture. For the past five years, over two million hectares of forest have been cleared every year. A large part of this land is used to produce soy, a famous meat replacement. Yet only six percent is used for human food, while 75 percent ends up in feed for pork, cattle, poultry and farmed fish.
Closer to home, intensive reindeer herding has led to overgrazing which has contributed to a systematic decline of lichen vegetation. Support of local business is important, but at what cost?
Another aspect often overlooked is water. One kilogramme of beef requires around 15,500 litres of water to produce. In comparison, producing an equivalent number of calories in cereal takes a quarter of that amount. With clean water often mentioned as a potential cause for a third world war and one in ten people lacking access to it, that is an interesting statistic.
See also: Farmed reindeer 'Norway's new salmon'
The truth is that cheap meat is only made possible by polluting the environment.
If the costs are so high, how are they maintained? Long term ecological management, often paid for by the government. Subsidies that help to keep the price low, paid by governments. Low wages in abattoirs; a human cost paid for by foreign labourers with their life quality and perhaps our karma. Eventually, “external costs” are often paid for with taxpayer money, or degradation of livelihood. And the estimated global economic costs of climate change in the upcoming decades run wildly between hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars.
The question is: why do we not hear more about this? Perhaps politicians avoid the question for fear of a public opinion backlash and being punished by consumers during elections. On both a national, as well as a global level, meat is a sensitive topic with big interests.
In Norway’s fjords we find the world’s most advanced fish farming industry. Likewise, nearly half of the European Union budget is spent on agriculture and fisheries through a framework that was designed in the face of widespread food shortages during the post-war period. This money goes to subsidies but also projects to promote dairy and meat consumption. The production of meat alone presents about 28 percent of the total agricultural output of the European Union, around €96 billion.
Research by Chatham House concluded that “climate change is not currently a primary consideration in food choices”. Consumers look at taste, price, health and food safety but not climate. In other words, there is a wide awareness gap regarding the link between food and the environment.
But a lot of us do know about this, and it is easy to ask whether writing yet another article about it will change anything. Because this is not only about knowledge, it is about trying something new and changing habits. Costs rising into the billions are abstract numbers and the suffering of others is something faraway.
As long as every day the sun rises and supermarket opens, what will make us care? Plenty of reasons show why we should and the least we can do is to remind ourselves and others of these facts over and again.
Something to keep in mind when piously pledging to your New Year’s resolutions: why not try a meat-free Monday? A vegetarian meal, including fish, will carve 48 percent of your dietary carbon emissions, which is around 13 percent of your daily footprint.
This article is not a call to boycott meat. It is not written by a guy driving an organic bike and only drinking ecological tea from Brazil that tastes like morning dew and rain forest. As matter of fact, I like meat a lot. I simply would like you to ask yourself: should we, just maybe, eat a little bit less of it?
Mark de Hoop is a 23-year-old from The Netherlands with an interest in sustainable development and environmental education. He currently lives and works in Tromsø. He suggests the following resources for more information: Meat-free Monday, Angela Morelli, 'Cowspiracy' and this UN report on the environment impacts of our consumption habits.