Meat: a threat to our planet?

Liz Bonnin’s new documentary asks tough questions about the meat we eat and how we farm it. Karen Thomas went to meet the wildlife biologist and TV presenter

WHEN THE LIGHTS go up at Soho Screening Rooms, they reveal a dozen shell-shocked journalists. “Guess it’ll be salad for lunch today, then,” mutters the man from the TV listings mag.

The screening unveiled a hard-hitting new documentary by Liz Bonnin, looking at the impact on our planet of farming and eating meat. Bonnin, viewing the final edit for the first time, looks as shell-shocked as the rest of us, despite having scaled a tree in the Amazon rainforest to film a harpy eagle nest, visited a 50,000-head Carolina feedlot and seen for herself the abandoned penguin chicks of the Western Cape.

And the images are shocking. This is what it looks like to clear a fifth of Brazil’s rainforests to farm beef. Here are the waterways poisoned with farm slurry. These are the penguins whose fishmeal now feeds livestock. Here is the cow with the hole in its side, testing whether seaweed makes it burp less.

The facts are equally stark. Every year, we eat 65 billion animals. The US chews its way through 10 billion kilos of meat a year. The 1.5 billion cows on the planet will increase by 400 million by 2050. The number of chickens will increase five-fold. One cow emits as much greenhouse gas as burning 600 litres of petrol.

We have lost a third of the world’s biodiversity to livestock farming. Bonnin’s documentary takes in the scale and impact of how livestock farming is taking up more land, using and contaminating more water. It documents how farming erodes the planet’s carbon sinks, how antibiotics and agrichemicals are killing pollinators and larger species.


Meat: a threat to our planet? draws on the EAT-Lancet Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change land-use report and other peer-reviewed reports. “I’m a scientist, and my remit is to inform and educate, using the scientific evidence and data and the consensus,” Bonnin tells The Environment.
“But my gosh, this was the most difficult project to date, because of the level of investigation this needed and because the science is so complex. It’s taken longer than any other programme I’ve worked on to cut through the noise to find a good, strong narrative.

“Our environmental impact and causal factors are complex. How one aspect of our behaviour affects the environment in itself is very complex. We had to try to give a balanced account of an issue that isn’t balanced, because of the impact [of livestock farming on the planet]. We had to report the scientific consensus.”

The film asks how livestock farming could be less destructive. Bonnin meets a Texas pig farmer turning slurry into biogas, scientists in San Francisco who grow meat in petri dishes, a British smallholder on first-name terms with the chickens that feed his family. A scientist working for the US livestock lobby tells her that human skills and ingenuity will find greener ways to farm.

Bonnin concludes that change will come only if consumers eat less meat. But is it fair to hold the consumer responsible? She says she rarely eats red meat now.

“Reports like EAT-Lancet show we should only eat two portions of meat a week,” she says. “That consensus comes from 30 scientists from different countries, and points to a drastic change that needs to happen globally.

“As individuals, we all have our role. Compared to climate emissions or to the plastics issue, there’s a very direct link between supply and what individuals do. If, as experts recommend, we eat less meat, the supply chain will be different. In this case consumers can drive change much more immediately than many other environmental issues.”


How should governments and industry drive change? “We need support from legislation and we need big-industry changes,” Bonnin says. “All sectors would benefit from taking a long, hard look at their environmental impact. But we have a chance [with meat farming] to make our voices heard, to mitigate this crisis, more quickly than in other areas.

“It’s clear, the more environmental programmes I make, that we will have no livelihoods long term, if we continue this trajectory. Industry and livelihoods and our sustainable future will benefit if we start to shift now, in the ways that the experts advise; if we transform the way we run the world, the way production and consumption work.

“I don’t agree with the argument that because livelihoods will suffer now, we cannot change. Soon enough, there will be no soil to support what we need to survive unless we change the way we live on this planet.”

Before filming, Bonnin promised her production crew not to cry on camera. Confronted with the scale of destruction, she broke that promise. “I’m an emotional fish,” she says. “I blame my French and Latin American blood.

“On any given day, I can be hugely pessimistic about the future. On another, I can feel inspired and hopeful. The days I feel hopeful are days spent out in the field with the scientists working night and day to save our planet. Knowing we have the propensity to be such resourceful human beings gives me hope.

“David Attenborough and Jane Goodall and Greta Thunberg – those people give me hope. The other thing that gives me hope is that CEOs of banks and people from big industry are beginning to talk about degrowth, rather than making economic gain and pandering to shareholders their priority.

“A change is beginning to happen, at industry level, in the way we talk about our relationship with the planet and ecosystem resource use. If we can crack things at that level, we can crack this.

“It’s just that we’re cutting it a little bit fine.”

Meat: a threat to our planet? will be screened at 2100 hrs on BBC One on November 25 and available thereafter on iPlayer

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