Degrowth, food and agriculture – Part 6

This is Part 6 of a series on Deep Adaptation, Degrowth and MMT that I am steadily writing. I have previously written in this series that there will need to be a major change in the composition of output and the patterns of consumption if we are to progress towards a sustainable future. It will take more than cutting material production and consumption. We have to make some fundamental shifts in the way we think about materiality. The topic today is about consumption but a specific form – our food and diets. Some readers might know that there has been a long-standing debate across the globe on whether a vegetarian/vegan diet is a more sustainable path to follow than the traditional meat-eating diet. Any notion that the ‘meat’ industry is environmentally damaging is vehemently resisted by the big food corporations. Like anything that challenges the profit-seeking corporations there is a massive smokescreen of misinformation created to prevent any fundamental change. New research, however, makes it clear that we can achieve substantial reductions in carbon emissions by abandoning meat products in our diets and the gains are disproportionately biased towards the richest nations. I have long argued that I find a fundamental contradiction in those who espouse green credentials and advocate dramatic behavioural shifts to deal with climate change while a the same time eating meat products. The recent research supports that argument. So Greenies, give up the steaks and the chickens and get on your bikes and head to the greengrocer and start cooking plants.

In 1971, American author Frances Moore Lappé published – Diet for a Small Planet – which detailed really for the first time that our dietary choices impacted on our natural environment and influenced food security across the globe.

She advocated a vegetarian diet and argued that beef cattle production was a ‘protein factory in reverse’.

The food activism in that period was linked to all the other ‘movements’ that were happening a the time – civil rights in the US, anti-imperialist protests including opposition to the Vietnam war, womens’ rights, etc.

I was starting out at University in that period and these debates were all interlinked.

The Club of Rome, which was founded in 1968 and produced the ground-breaking report – The Limits to Growth (1972) – together with the ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ were two highly influential incursions into the debate about environmental sustainability and growth, with the latter tying in the food we produce and eat in an integrated way.

The ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ told us way back then that world hunger was not due to a shortage of food globally, but rather the type of food being produced and how it was distributed.

She argued that moving to a plant-based diet and abandoning cattle etc would solve the global food problem.

Natural foods movements were also spawned by these interventions and tied in the problems that arise from ‘big food’ Capitalism both in terms of compromising human health but also how it ravaged the natural environment.

Of course, like all these new ideas that challenged the status quo dominated by profit-seeking corporations who have been shown to regularly suppress research on the damage their products create in order to make more profits, there has been major push back from the food industry.

Further, our perceptions of what is sustainable with respect to food have not fundamentally changed.

On June 15, 2021, the Australian Climate Council of Australia article – Agriculture’s contribution to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions – indicated that:

While the burning of coal, oil and gas is the dominant source of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and so the dominant cause of the worsening impacts of climate change …

In Australia, ‘agriculture’ contributes around 13% of our greenhouse gas emissions each year. By weight, about half of the agricultural sector’s emissions – or 42% – are methane. Most of this is the methane produced by cows and other livestock due to the fermentation of plant matter in their stomachs …

Another separate source of emissions related to agriculture is land clearing for pastures and grazing land.

Last year (January 10, 2022), a new study was published in the journal Nature – Dietary change in high-income nations alone can lead to substantial double climate dividend – which provides ‘food for thought’ (sorry). The article is only accessible via a library subscription.

We learn that:

1. “Agriculture is key to determining the rate and depth of climatic change. Current food system emissions alone may preclude the limiting of climate warming to 1.5 °C or even 2 °C above pre-industrial levels”.

2. There are many scientific studies that now confirm that “Dietary change, for one, has been found to be a practical and effective strategy” for “limiting climate change”.

3. “The global food system is responsible for … 26% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agricultural production, particularly animal-derived products and land-use change, accounts for the largest proportion of these emissions”.

4. There is also a matter of global distribution of these impacts – “Animal-derived products account for 70% of food-system emissions in high-income countries but only 22% in low–middle-income countries.”

5. The authors conjecture that “dietary change in high-income countries may hold the potential to substantially reduce agricultural emissions around the world—a potential climate ‘dividend’.”

We learn that:

Given the large land requirement and high emissions intensity of animal agriculture, a shift away from animal-product consumption comprises the largest opportunity for both increased carbon sequestration via land sparing and emissions reductions from the food system itself.

The data is compelling.

They find that shifting to a vegetarian diet would reduce carbon emissions and “more than half of the increase in global carbon sequestration would occur in four nations alone: the United States (26.3%, 25.85 GtCO2e), Australia (13.5%, 13.28 GtCO2e), Germany (7.7%, 7.55 GtCO2e) and France (7.6%, 7.45 GtCO2e), collectively”.

GtCO2e is gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Closer to home:

Australian dietary changes would see the largest per capita carbon benefit overall at 574.90 Mg CO2e of sequestration (6.7 times the average of all high-income countries

These benefits would come from a combination of moving away from animal products and restoring the native pastures and forests.

Figure 2 in the article summarises the data and I reproduce it here.

It shows the ‘potential carbon sequestration’ gains and the ‘potential GHG reductions’ by food type.

Massive environmental benefits would flow from a shift away from meat products to plant-based protein.

The impacts vary by nation as a result of the ‘scale of beef production system’ and scale of dairy consumption.

Where to start?

The research shows that a shift away from meat consumption would:

1. “benefit both the global environment and human health in high-income countries.”

2. “Land spared due to dietary change would expand opportunities for the implementation of natural climate solutions, such as regrowth of natural forest, which is arguably the single most effective natural climate solution throughout much of the world.”

But how would we get there?

The authors suggest a number of policy interventions that would help push the required transition.

They are particularly aware that the transition could impact adversely on low-income communities, which consume higher proportions of “unhealthy dood high in saturated fat, sugar or starch” because nutritious foods are more expensive to produce and purchase.

This problem is not confined to this issue.

The behavioural transitions that will be required are typically biased against low-income communities, which is why they are often resisted.

This has been a traditional problem for Green political groups who are big on stopping logging in rainforests and whatever but small on providing the dependent communities with an alternative way to maintain their material security (that is jobs).

Government will have to provide income support to ensure the low-income communities can fully participate in the shift away from meat products and the cheap fatty, sugary products.

The authors also point out that governments already provide massive subsidies to the big food corporations, which undermine environmental sustainability.

They write:

These subsidies could instead be redirected along the lines of environmentally sustainable agricultural practices and healthy diets.

A related topic, which I am working on in relation to my research in Japan is the question of food waste, which also contributes to environmental damage.

In addition to supporting low-income communities in making the necessary change, the authors, rightfully, note that government support for local producers, especially those in poorer nations that target export markets, would be required.

The shift would create “massive social upheaval” and that is the challenge for the degrowth agenda – how to ensure the ‘costs’ are borne equitably without compromising on the need for “rapid and deep change”.


These investments in people and communities will be essential.

An Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understading cuts through all the nonsense that such transitions are financially prohibitive.

Any currency-issuing government can ‘fund’ these changes.

The real challenge is convincing hard-core meat eaters that their days pursuing that diet must be numbered.

The behavioural shifts that are involved are quite complex even if there was no resistance.

But if we are to move towards a ‘degrowth’ world then those shifts, in my view, are essential.

There are a lot of things that are out of the control of individuals.

But what goes through our lips is totally within our discretion.

The only way forward in my view is to abandon meat products.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2023 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. “The only way forward in my view is to abandon meat products.”

    Good luck with that. We are not cows. We do not eat grass.

    Vegetarianism is said to be not a diet, but a religion. And a false religion at that.

    We need to reduce the carbs, not the fat and protein.

  2. I’d get a tattoo of Ayn Rand on my chest before I would even consider becoming a vegetarian.

  3. “Diet for a Small Planet” was our social cohort’s bible in the 1970s so it was a bit disappointing to read somewhere that Frances Moore Lappé wasn’t a vegetarian herself; a bit like promoting MMT but personally believing in the virtue of balanced budgets.

    I now suspect it was a nasty rumour spliced into the internet by the meat and livestock industry.

    On another subject, the Sunday Times (UK) has reviewed a new book by Martin Wolf (“The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism”) :

    “Along the way, Wolf usefully demolishes modern monetary theory (the idea that governments that issue their own currencies can spend money without constraint)…”

    It’s a crude misrepresentation of MMT of course but probably also a misrepresentation of Wolf?

  4. Plant eaters suck water, meat eaters lap it. Nature’s rule of thumb I read somewhere. I’m a vegetarian because I like animals, appreciate them and wouldn’t want to harm them. And plant based food is tastier and better quality (for my pallette). I know some very good people who are vegetarians and some very good people who are meat eaters. And v.v. Being vegetarian is an intelligent existence, for a human and the planet and animals too.

  5. I think that it is worse than that, eating meat especially sticking to the so-called Western diet is simply harmful to people who do it. The issue has been briefly mentioned in the blog but let me provide some data. “A sustained change from a typical Western diet to the optimal diet from age 20 years would increase LE (life expectancy) by more than a decade for women from the United States (10.7 [95% UI 8.4 to 12.3] years) and men (13.0 [95% UI 9.4 to 14.3] years). ” source This is about 40-50% of the impact of not smoking cigarettes. I need to admit that I stopped eating meat several years ago and I observed positive and sustained impact on my cholesterol levels. To put it bluntly – meat is for cats because they evolved this way, not for humans. Perhaps 300-400 years ago European peasants had to source protein from animals, a pig or chickens would eat leftovers. People would be malnourished, especially after wars. The amount of meat eaten was limited unless someone was rich. But nowadays Europeans and Americans don’t have to source protein this way. Marketers teach us to believe that burned parts of dead animals are “tasty”, we all pretend to be aristocrats and it is a symptom of “high culture” to eat this stuff and drink fermented grape juice (containing another harmful substance, ethanol). According to Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, “the US obesity prevalence was 41.9% in 2017 – March 2020”. In this context I would not call vegetarianism a false religion but an informed choice, even if we don’t look into moral and environmental aspects of this issue.

  6. @abc not sure why you came here to show off your lack of knowledge on nutrition.
    With regard to ‘hard-core meat eaters’, speaking from the UK, I’d also say that we have to lose our infatuation with using meat-eating animals as comfort blanket pets. We stopped using horses as our cities became overwhelmed with shit (only to pollute the air), so I’m sure that progress is possible.

  7. Technology hopefully will solve our problems with methane emissions.

    ‘Australian scientists have found that a genus of seaweed native to Australian coastal waters could provide a global solution to methane emissions from livestock. Scientists at CSIRO have developed a cost-effective patented feed ingredient.’

    I imagine in the future huge man-made islands with large sheds that the livestock inhabit in rotation, these sheds have tech. that extracts the livestock’s methane emissions from the atmosphere with-in the sheds. The methane is then used as fuel, to power the island, along with solar, wind and tidal energy sources.

    We have had similar problems and solved them using technology in the past. After WW2 (late 1940s and 1950s) we had a population explosion. They thought at the time the only way to deal with the possibility of millions starving to death was growing and eating chlorella (algae related to the green scum on ponds). The chlorella idea gained huge media attention at the time. Of course we did not have to rely on eating chlorella.

    ‘The growing world food problem of the 1940s was solved by better crop efficiency and other advances in traditional agriculture.’ from chlorella wikipedia.

  8. I’ll miss the “spread the word…” part of your posts.
    Anyway, there are plenty of studies that show that the real problem with excess consumption is in the top tier of the population, the 1%.
    And as we all know, income and wealth are beeing diverted from the bottom to the top – the greedflation bout is all around.
    Therefore, logic tells us that the climate change is going to get worst, not better.
    We are allready watching some of them making leisure trips to outer space.
    I wonder how many cows we need to slaugther, to make one rocket fly, so that a rich bloke can go and see the scenic view from the high atmosphere.

  9. For the first time ever I disagree with pretty much everything written on this blog.
    There is so much wrong here it makes me wonder if you’re trying to pull our leg Bill.

    My personal experience has been that all of my health markers, energy level, and general health improved greatly when I moved to a keto/ carnivore diet, and time restricted eating (1-2 meals /day) from a diet were I was trying to satisfy all my daily needs for energy, essential proteins, essential fatty acids, and essential minerals from multiple plant based meals a day.
    “Essential” means we can’t achieve optimum health or even live very long without them.

    In my country fresh plant based food has to be transported from distant parts of the world for most of the year.

    My parents, grand parents, and great grand parents all managed to live into their 90’s mostly in good health on diets similar to what I follow now.

    Humans are omnivores, geared to optimally obtain energy, and extract essential nutrients from animal sourced food. We probably evolved as scavengers long before we learned to hunt, and then go on to invent animal agriculture.
    The evolution of the human brain as things unfolded was a gamble, read about the
    “expensive brain” hypothesis. We would not have our present problem solving capacities if we had evolved around a plant based diet.
    We can use plant derived carbohydrates for energy but we’re not well designed for this. No single plant contains all of the nutrients essential to survival, while beef comes pretty darn close to being perfect. Plants contain many things toxic, inflammatory or carcinogenic to us…

    Done using best practices, on small farms following organic methods, animal agriculture can be practiced almost anywhere people live, is quite sustainable and in many ways better for the health of the planet. Some animals can graze in areas were plant based agriculture isn’t even possible, and live in symbiotic relationships with the plants they consume, if allowed/ encouraged to do so.

    Corporate greed has transformed agriculture, in ways that make it difficult for farmers trying to operate using these environment friendly best practices, in order to capture market share and maximize profit.
    I suspect much of the information we receive, comes to us courtesy of large corporations wishing to sell us products we wouldn’t want to purchase without massive marketing campaigns utilizing pseudo science as a tool to confound us.
    There is in fact quite a bit of historical evidence in favor of that being exactly the case.

  10. This is actually a very interesting topic – why so many people react in the way demonstrated above to the statement that eating meat is unnecessary and harmful in general. Not eating a small piece of boiled chicken meat every Saturday. This won’t kill anyone, just like smoking a single cigarette won’t most likely cause a cancer. It is about the meat-based Western diet and its derivatives (paleo, etc). The reaction to vegetarianism/veganism is even more “vigorous” than the endless arguments about Covid. There is a lot of study explaining that eating habits form early in the childhood and people are conditioned to eat what they parents put in front of them (I can provide links if necessary). It is also a core part of Western culture or any culture in general. There is nothing “rational” in eating corpses of dead animals, in the end it is an extreme case of collectivist behaviour, conforming to roles and norms which evolved several hundred years ago in Europe and some parts of Asia. Can the humanity afford to do it in the 21-st century? Finally I know what to say if I want to trigger boring people sitting around me. Now off to the morning jog, I need to have strength and stamina to run away when I trigger people too much.

  11. It is sufficient to reduce meat consumption, based on ecologically sound use of grasslands, which are the world’s most important carbon sink. It would be truer to say that we need to substitute industrial meat production with proper grassland management, which would incidentally reduce fertilizer and potash production and use by massive amounts. I think Bill needs to discuss this with Tony Lovell or Ischani Wheeler. See their presentations from some years ago at TED-X Dubbo (or also look at Alan Savory’s WORK holistic dryland management).

  12. “There is so much wrong here it makes me wonder if you’re trying to pull our leg Bill.”

    I doubt there’s a subject about which Bill is more serious Jane.

    Pull this article (“The Australian government is not akin to a household”) out of archives and scroll down to Bill’s thoughts on the what would follow if hypothetically the Scottish government had decreed that it would only accept payment in Highland cattle.

    Bill was addressing a claim that MMT’s assertion that taxes drive the currency was “easily refuted”.

    “Among [taxpayers] portfolio of currencies will still be highland cows, whereas if the Scottish government had not so decreed under its tax law, no one would seek highland cows – other than those carnivore philistines who eat them.”

    Good for you you’ve found a diet that you say maintains your health but I’m puzzled that you struggled to do the same on a plant based diet.

  13. I wish to say from the outset that I own a very small beef property (50-100 head). We run only the number of stock that the property can handle at any given time, we do not input feeds or fertiliser. The animals are as they would have been in the wild basically (although not in Aust). I understand to some degree the ethical and environmental arguments around foregoing meat. However there are other factors to discuss in conjunction with this topic.
    1. For dietary reasons I think the overall consumption of meat should not be as high as it is in wealthy countries. A reduction would ease the stress on the agricultural system would reduce the sorts of factory farming methods that generate a large proportion of the emissions.
    2. The number of Bison in North America prior to settlement was 60M , they have been replaced by 100M cattle. Adding Africa and European steppes into this mix would be interesting. Not sure the relative gas outputs of different species, but when considering human impact from meat eating, consideration should be given to the grazing plains animals that existed prior to farming.
    3. Many properties used for animal production cannot be used for cropping. In addition land used for animal production can, using regenerative methods, support native species of plants, animals and birds. A good cover (25%) of trees is beneficial to animal production. Of course intensive farming methods do not follow these norms, see comment 1 above. Cropping is by and large a single species undertaking, with large inputs of energy, water, fertiliser and pesticides. This is detrimental to a range of wildlife, insects and birds.
    4. What would happen to the land no longer needed for animal production. It will not magically regenerate to a wild habitat. Within a few years our property would be overrun by exotic weeds, the natural environment would not compete. At least a Job Guarantee may help this problem?
    5. In Australia, while agricultural emissions have stabilised (account methods aside) transport emissions have sored. Replacing defunct dairy farms on the outskirts of our cities or regions with car based (even environmentally friendly) dormitory suburbs only adds to the damage.
    In summary, as MMT sees the economy and choices in greater complexity that the current norm, so too is the environment and the choices we make a very complex system. Judging one part in isolation is not productive.

  14. Wife and I ate meat for some sixty years. Then became vegetarians following our daughter’s lead. No sweat whatsoever in switching over. Miss meat these days about as much as the cigs I used to smoke. Hard to believe that some would insist on changing the world yet be so unwilling and hostile about changing their diet. Going vegan’s a challenge, yes, but going vegetarian’s a snap.

  15. I never liked most of the ‘degrowth’ ideas in the first place. And adding this on top of those is a bridge too far for me. How many hamburgers equal a flight from New York to Australia in terms of the environment? I’ll eat my hamburgers and you can fly around the world and I will try to avoid telling you how much worse your behaviors are affecting the environment than mine are.

  16. Great piece, Bill. A pity about some of the tirades directed towards the need for and sufficiency of a vegetarian/ vegan diet in the comments. On another note: it is great to see degrowth champion Jason Hickel well and truly aboard the MMT boat.

  17. An inconvenient truth, even for those that want a better collective world. The individualist desires of meat eating still remains. You can still have greedy desires in a full employment world, so we need to go deeper in eliminating this fundamental issue of human nature…

  18. John Armour
    February 14, 2023 at 09:11:

    “Good for you you’ve found a diet that you say maintains your health but I’m puzzled that you struggled to do the same on a plant based diet.”

    There is nothing puzzling about this, many people don’t thrive on plant based diets, and only recover from any number of related illnesses when they switch to animal based food sources.

    Problems can develop as a result of plant fibre in the gut. I didn’t know this when I switched to keto and then carnivore, that was an act of desperation; however, recent studies have concluded that plant fibre can lead to overgrowth of certain gut bacteria and that supports a process of depositing proteins which don’t belong there into the blood stream, resulting in inflammatory issues, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

    Allergies, asthma, and migraine headaches were all issues deeply affecting the quality of my life, and many others have found these and other conditions subsided or completely disappeared when they switched to animal based diet, the one diet that unsurprising to me has the least amount of credible evidence demonstrating causality of any human health issue.

    There is a pandemic of obesity in much of the western world, and this results from what has come to be regarded as the “Standard North American Diet”. If people interested in fat loss just eat the meat and not the plant based carbohydrates, plant seed based oils, etc.. , traditionally included alongside meat, positive results begin to show fairly rapidly, as do reductions in serious obesity related health issues, resulting from plant based diet related syndromes : “metabolic syndrome” and “insulin resistance”.

    Couple all this with the fact that following best animal agriculture practices leads to an industry that is actually carbon negative, and it’s difficult to see any reason to give primacy to plant based agriculture.

  19. Sustainability has failed as a framework for future economics (Benson and Craig, 2014 and many others).

  20. Thanks for your personal explanation for your decision Jane. You’ve clearly had some difficult issues to deal with.

    Putting aside the health benefits, either supposed or real, of any chosen dietary regimen, there’s one thing about not eating meat however that’s hard to dispute: it doesn’t involve the killing of sentient animals.

  21. John Armour
    February 15, 2023 at 08:32:

    Nothing gets out of life alive. I don’t like that, it would be nice to live in utopia, however there is reality, and I wish to survive as a healthy sentient animal myself. For another human to deny me that… ? Not going to happen.

    We shouldn’t underestimate the killing of life, sentient or otherwise, associated with plant based agriculture, have you ever sat in a gmo soy field?, a source of plant based protein? Nothing but the soy lives there, it’s eerily silent except for the wind rustling through the plants, no mice or voles, no insects, or life in the soil itself. I have and that is reality John.

    We can’t even say plants are not sentient, that is to anthropomorphize beyond reason. We just don’t know, life is life, and something always dies for another to live. Life is a cycle. Eventually we all become food for something.

    Having witnessed best practice animal agriculture first hand, the animals regardless of their level of consciousness are treated humanely throughout life. A better life than one lived naturally in the wild.
    Even as a human living in a neoliberal world, you can become worthless to ‘society’ and then homeless before dying a cruel death on mean streets months later.

  22. Hi Bill.

    What is so often overlooked is the health aspects of meat diets.

    I have idiopathic epilepsy. I have exhausted all pharmaceuticals and was put on a medical ketogenic diet last May. My condition has improved massively.

    I am limited to 25 grams of carbohydrates a day. A apple is approximately 10g of carbs. Meanwhile I need to have 45 grams of fat in every meal. An egg is roughly 5g of fat.

    While oils can help, too much oil makes me literally vomit. Meat, eggs, cheese, butter and fish make up most of my diet.

    There is no vegetarian/vegan diet that exists that would maintain my ketosis as the carbohydrates would kick me out of it.

    I understand I’m an outlier in this respect. But people are becoming more aware of their diets, and bloating is a symptom of inflammation. Also why has this diet worked for me, its still not clear. My point is, diet needs to be investigated throughly without bias or climate in mind. That can come after investigation. There is little point in pursuing a whole diet change only for people to become sick for other reasons, which would then stress the medical industry, and create problems in the employment sector.

  23. I became a vegetarian when I found a kitten in my garden over ten years ago. I took her in and try to help her survive (perhaps she was separated from her mother through a big rain that night).
    Any how, a thought came to my mind one day – if I feel petty for a small kitten, who is now 12 years old, who runs happily here and there in my house and freely in my small village, how about chicken, pigs, cows and all that.
    Since then, my wife and I slowly stay away from eating meat and never look back and never miss any of it.
    However, yes, we often wonder if this is healthy. Today, at 55, 60, we are still reasonably.
    Anyhow, we will keep doing this, and if we have to go early, that would be fine too. It is a choice we prefer to live with any day.

    But then we happened to think of India, where we knew that almost a billion people are vegetarians for as long as time or before I was born, then, I think we are doing very very ok.

    (And as far as I am aware, Japan used to be a vegetarian state for about 600 years before they started eating fish).

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