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Is meat killing us?

Is meat killing us?

Reduced meat diets such as vegetarianism, flexitarianism, veganism, or even ‘vague-enism’ have grown on a massive scale in recent years, largely in response to the scientific consensus that we need to reduce the amount of meat we’re eating if we want to be serious about mitigating climate change.

This conversation has never been more relevant than now, in light of COVID 19, as scientists also warn that three quarters of infectious diseases are zoonotic, passing from animals to humans because of threats to biodiversity, the fact that there’s less and less wild land and our intensive animal agriculture systems. Whether we need to stop eating meat entirely or produce it in a different way, is at one of the most polarized parts of the environmental debate.

Impossible Co-Founder, Lily Cole, spoke with some leading names on both sides of the debate to try and understand more about this highly contentious topic. Here we share with you some highlights from their interviews.

Linda McCartney Foods

Paul McCartney is one of the most successful recording artists of all time, yet it was Linda McCartney’s name which resonated first with a young vegetarian Lily, because of her alternative meat products which were pioneering when they launched in 1991.

Paul McCartney and Lily Cole.

When Linda and Paul McCartney decided to become vegetarian, there were very few options, as Paul McCartney explained to Lily:

“If you serve a normal meal, then take the meat out, what’s left? It’s strange things around the outside, like vegetables and stuff. So we had to fill that hole and this became our mission and we had a very exciting time really, coming up with those things.”

Animal welfare was at the forefront of their movement:

“I think that still is a major argument that we are on this little sphere in space, that is perfectly situated. So that makes us perfect. That makes us a miracle planet. And then on this planet, there have evolved creatures. Some of which are us. Some of which are these others. I always say, look, you know, we’ve got these fellow creatures. I want to give them their shot. Like I want my shot. I want my kids to have their shot at life. And that’s how I feel. I extend that to living creatures. They’re our sort of friends. We find ourselves amazingly positioned with them in time and space. And it’s just us and them. So I don’t know. I think there’s a very strong argument for giving them a break.”

As the meat industry has grown at such an epic scale, Paul McCartney acknowledges that the environment is also a key factor behind his family’s activism, most famously their Meat Free Mondays initiative which is trying to reduce people’s meat intake.

“The more you look into that, you realize that, if it was just a couple of cows on the farm and the farmer’s only way of making an existence is by farming those animals, then, I don’t necessarily agree with them, but I don’t have a big problem with that. But when it’s McDonalds and it’s billions of cows to feed that monster, then I think that’s where the problem lies. This over production.”

Impossible meat

Nearly 30 years on with greater demand and huge technical innovations, we are now seeing a boom of companies thinking about how to make fake animal products in interesting ways. Lily met with Pat Brown, the Stanford scientist and founder of Impossible Foods, who is producing plant-based burgers using genetically modified organisms (GMO) that taste, look and even bleed like meat.

Pat Brown from Impossible Foods.
Impossible Foods CEO and Founder, Pat Brown. Photo by Robyn Beck — AFP.

Pat doesn’t believe we’re going to reduce the global demand for meat by simply asking people to stop eating it. Instead, he aims to disrupt the market in a different way.

“The only way to solve the problem is to basically say, people are not going to change their behavior and therefore it falls on us to figure out a way to produce those foods that delivers everything they want and outperforms the foods from animals, and just compete in the marketplace and take those industries down. That’s why I founded this company and that’s our goal; completely replace animals in the food system by 2035, which we will do.

We’re going after beef first because it is the single most impactful win we could have and if we succeed in doing that, it will basically send a signal to the financial markets, that people who are raising any of these kinds of foods depend on, that it’s a terrible investment, that this whole technology is going the way of the horse and carriage and therefore make it harder for those people to get access to the loans and investment they need to stay in business.”

Pat acknowledges that there are concerns around the mono-crops on which fake meats often depend, which present their own challenges for the environment, but to him, the cause of the problem and the solution are straightforward:

“There’s 10 times more cow biomass on earth than every wild vertebrate combined and that means that we’re taking all the land and resources and photosynthetic productivity that previously supported diverse species and just focusing on making cows. And that is a catastrophe.

As you may know, from the World Wildlife Fund, that the total number of wild animals living on earth today is less than half what it was 40 years ago. If you look at their data or any other data, you realize that it’s almost entirely due to use of animals in the food system. And although palm oil is a factor, it’s a very small factor compared to animal agriculture.

So right now, animal agriculture takes up about half of Earth’s land area. In the US, 40% of the entire land area is devoted to raising cows for beef. If we could snap our fingers and make that industry go away, immediately 40% of the land would no longer have any economic value for agriculture.

The point is that you get a huge return on reduction, environmental impact by freeing up that land. And if you want to bring down atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the only reasonable way you can do it in a finite amount of time is by photosynthesis and turning atmospheric CO2 into biomass. The recovery of the land that’s being used for animal agriculture will pull out 17 years worth of fossil fuel emissions out of the atmosphere as CO2, which, if you could turn that clock back by 17 years, that would be extremely valuable because it would give people more time to get their act together.”


Pat Brown’s vision is very clear. In his mind, if we moved away from farming animal products absolutely, we would free up a huge proportion of the world to rewild. Interestingly, Lily met with one of the pioneers of rewilding projects, Isabella Tree, who believes there is an important role that animals can play in certain types of agriculture. In her book, Rewilding, Isabella documents her and her husband Charlie’s journey to take their inherited farmland and turn it into an enormous wildlife project: Knepp Wildlife Estate in West Sussex, England. Lily visited them to learn more about her thoughts on meat and rewilding.

Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell. Photo by Dean Hearne.

Isabella and Charlie inherited Knepp in the 1980s from his grandparents when it was a struggling intensive arable and dairy farm. They spent 17 years trying to make the farm viable, but the hard Sussex clay proved too hard to work with. With subsidies barely keeping them afloat, in 1999 they made the bold decision to give up farming and look to more regenerative alternatives. They were inspired by Dutch ecologist Frans Vera to consider the impact on conservation and biodiversity of putting animals back into the landscape. Isabella explains:

“If you appreciate the huge herds of animals that would have been here in the past before human impact, so herds of bison, of aurochs — the original ox, of tarpan — the original horse, elk, reindeer, red deer, wild boar, beavers by the millions. If you start putting them back into the landscape, as they would have been, you suddenly get a much more dynamic and sort of kaleidoscopic, mosaic of habitats, than this kind of close canopy vision we often have in our heads of ubiquitous forest.

These animals would have disturbed that vegetation. They would have debarked trees. They would have pushed trees over. They would have kept open clearings. They would have trampled, rootled, made messy margins around the rivers. They would have coppiced trees and they would have created much more of a sort of Savannah like landscape. So what Frans is really saying is that if you want to recover biodiversity and you want to recover the systems on which species, including our own, survive then the way to do that is to introduce free roaming animals into the landscape again and to let them drive the system, let them create dynamism again in landscapes that have undergone what scientists call a catastrophic shift to a kind of depletion.”

For Isabella, animals are a crucial component of environmental repair, and eating them is part of the natural balance.

“We certainly should not be eating meat that’s produced in intensive systems where animals are fed grain. It’s not only unsustainable, it’s bad for the animals. It’s also bad for the humans that eat those animals. It’s bad on every level. But there is a role, I think, for animals in a system like this and in regenerative agriculture too. And there is a market, I think now, for people who want to eat less meat, but want to be really certain where that meat comes from and to be as ethical as they possibly can about it.

As soon as you take animals out of the equation, you’re negating every species that would feed on dung, that brings that dung back into the soil, that regenerates the soil. You’re taking out of the equation things like animal hair which so many birds need to make their nests. You’re taking out of the equation the capability of a cow, for example, to transport 230 different seed species in its gut and its fur. It’s one of the most important vectors for getting flora from one place to another. This whole movement of minerals and nutrients that would have been transported around the landscape and the great migration of the animals of the past, they’re a vital dynamic part of natural processes.”

And so it all comes back to the soil:

“When you talk about regenerative agriculture and you’re looking at systems that involve rotations of livestock, where the dung and the urine and the trumping of the vegetation back into the soil, all that system is actually regenerating soils. The potential for carbon sequestration of those systems is absolutely vast. It’s probably the single most powerful answer we have to climate change, restoring our soils. So if these systems of the Impossible burger or lab-based technologies, if they are not sequestering carbon at the end of the day, at the end of the process, it’s not just enough to be carbon neutral. They have to be acting positively for the climate and if they don’t do that, then I would argue it’s unsustainable.

You know, after all nature has had millions and millions of years of R&D and we always think we know best and that technology will fix it, but I think we have to be very mindful of hubris and take a step back and think, how does nature perform? Nature already has the solutions I think…”

Gatherers and hunters

When looking to nature for solutions, it also makes sense to look at the communities who have been living in harmony with the natural world for generations before us. Anthropologist James Suzman argues that gatherer-hunter communities were the most sustainable human societies on Earth, practising their way of living for hundreds of thousands of years. Lily asked him about what we could learn from the San Bushmen in the Kalahari desert about their relationship to eating meat.

James Suzman.
James Suzman. Photo by Chris Frazer Smith — The Observer.

“A forager’s meat was the most fundamental and important of all foods, so there was a very potent spiritual element to it, you know, when a hunter pursued an animal, it created a very potent empathetic bond between them. In fact, there’s very good reason to argue that all these sort of animistic cultures, the ones who actually considered animals to have souls, were largely cultures that focused on individuals hunting.

If you’re pursuing an animal on foot, you develop that intensely personal bond. They merged two spirits, the hunter and the hunted merged together into one being and that creates a sort of level of empathy, and with that, a level of profound respect and acceptance of their personhood.”

This is a far cry from the way most of us consume our meat these days. As James explained:

“Now meat for most of us is in the supermarket, most of the meat that lies in the racks and on the shelves comes from factory farming and is a hideously depersonalizing process. It’s converting living creatures into kind of chattels and on the whole, they lead very bleak, very brief lives before they get shuffled into an abattoir. When you’re sitting in a slaughter house, one fifth of their natural lifespan, you’re seeing them, animals of their diminished worths. It sort of takes all the respect away from it. So I think there is a place for meat, but in my worldview, there’s not much of a space for factory farming.

Animals eat other animals, it is just nature, but this idea of mass producing cattle or chickens is just horrendous and there’s also the environmental impact. When we look at, for example, the quotient of mammalian biomass on the planet, you know, most of the mammalian biomass in the planet is made up of humans and their domestic animals, some astonishing number, like 80 or 90%. Whereas 10,000 years ago, humans and their domestic animals didn’t make up even a fraction of 1%. So that is where the severe impact lies, an actually broader environment. Also this diminution of the animals that we eat and as somebody who is a meat eater and who has hunted as well, it’s reflected in everything, it’s reflected in the experience of eating meat. Factory farm meat doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t taste good partially because we’ve diminished the soul of the animal that we’ve slaughtered, in both its life and the way we kill it.”

Holistic eating

Finally, Lily spoke with Alice Waters, the pioneering chef and activist, who in 2015 was awarded the National Humanities medal from President Obama for her work bringing together the ethical and the edible. For decades, Alice has advocated the slow food movement and regenerative agriculture and set up Edible School Yards across the United States, which encourages classrooms to move into the garden. Alice is sceptical of any type of fast food, meat, or otherwise, and believes that our attitude to eating needs to be more holistic.

Alice Waters from MasterClass.

“The way that you eat becomes the way that you think and so, when you’re eating fast food, you’re digesting the values that come with food. The idea that it’s OK to eat in your car. The idea that more is better. The idea that time is money. The idea that cooking and farming are drudgery, all come from a fast food industry that wants you to forget about the seasons, wants you to believe that you can have anything, any time, 24/7, any place in the world. These are the ideas that are really destroying the planet.”

The emphasis on local and seasonal is absolute for Alice, as is the importance of fostering real connections to nature, something she has worked tirelessly to promote with school children.

“The only thing that’s going to save the planet is falling in love and fortunately, it’s pretty easy when you’re four and six.”

So there you have it. Despite differences of opinion, everyone within this debate seems to agree we need to eat less animal products, and if we are going to eat them, we need to move to much healthier, more humane ways of farming animals.

The pragmatists amongst you might get very excited about companies like Impossible Foods, seeing them as a gateway to push against factory farming, without draconian political policies we’re unlikely to see anytime soon. For vegetarians and vegans, it’s also probably very comforting to see the range of meat alternatives that are coming to market.

That said, Alice’s philosophy is profound, and as she and Isabella point out, we have to be very mindful about the alternatives we’re creating and the unforeseen impacts they may have.

Ultimately, we may find that the soil beneath our feet holds the key to solving the climate crisis if we can empower it and listen to it.

This story was inspired by Lily’s podcast, Who Cares Wins which is available on all podcast platforms.

Join our movement of optimism on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Main image credit: Kyle Mackie.



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