Following on from Food Choices - Part One, I continue to discuss the pressures placed on natural resources by meat production, specifically on water and its inhabitants.
In addition to direct impacts of land clearance and farming methods on freshwater ecosystems, including pollution and siltation; meat production requires huge amounts of water input -it takes much more water to produce any animal product than crop products with equivalent nutritional value. Beef and dairy cattle are estimated to contribute to a quarter of the global water footprint of humanity and because of where meat and diary is being produced and consumed, water is effectively being traded globally, meaning that the protection of freshwater resources should no longer be regarded as just an issue for each individual country or river basin.
Many will have noted the loss of several of our favourite seafood dishes from our menus or seen and heard about the catastrophic drop in numbers of fish, with 85 per cent of the world’s fisheries now being categorised as overfished. 96 per cent of the Bluefin tuna population has been lost in the North Pacific, and, as a result of its rarity and prestige, the price is now outrageous - a juvenile Bluefin sold for over £1 million in Japan this year. This is a result of overconsumption and the push for high-tech harvesting techniques as well as wasteful management, including up to 27 million tonnes of bycatch a year, including (as well as fish and invertebrates) hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises and albatrosses.
Globally people eat more fish than any other type of animal protein, this includes marine and freshwater fish and wild and farmed fish. Farmed fish are problematic because, like meat, they must be fed, and they are often done so on wild-caught fish. Furthermore fish farms can be destructive to wetland habitats and cause pollution in the surrounding environment.
Suggestions are that if we target wild fish lower down the food chain at sustainable rates and in synch with their life cycles and systems, it would be much more sustainable. However, first, fish populations need a chance to recover from the onslaught they have experienced in recent years.
Freshwater fish, one of the most threatened groups of animals in the world, have also been subject to decline as a result of our consumption habits. The introduction of invasive species for food (as well as for biological control) has been particularly damaging- altering ecosystem dynamics and causing extinctions of native (including endemic) fish. Close to home, the European eel is now categorised as Critically Endangered and while a number of factors have caused its demise, overfishing of glass (young) eels is thought to have a had a critical impact on numbers. As well as impacting biodiversity, the overexploitation of freshwater fish can have significant impacts on poorer communities who rely heavily on freshwater fish for protein and livelihoods.
Reducing meat and diary consumption and making educated decisions about which products you choose to consume and when, can have a significant and cumulative impact. Taking the leap from environmentally minded to reducing your meat consumption or even eating no meat and/or diary is probably less daunting than it seems!
Although, surprisingly (given all the arguments) vegetarians are sometimes still in the minority (even within the UK) it is starting to become more acceptable and normal to decide to adopt a less meat-dominated diet. The more people who consider their food choices thoughtfully, the easier avoiding meat, fish and its products will become and the bigger the impact we can collectively have on the environment.