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  • Writer's pictureCallum Leese

Earthed: Our Health and Our Planet

On holiday last week after pouring a cold glass of white wine I sat down to watch the evening news. It didn’t make pretty watching. The almost apocalyptic forest fires, following the recent floods, and the United Nations dire ‘red-alert’ warning for climate change was hard hitting. It’s hard to dispute that it’s the greatest crisis facing humanity in the 21st century.

Yet my eternal optimism, and the closing note on the United Nations statement, made me pass over the pre-eminent sense of helplessness and search for personal solutions.

As a general practitioner trainee with an interest in public health I have a pre-occupation with measures me can make as individuals (and communities) to improve our health and well-being. For a while now I have been struck by the often collaborating truths of human health and planet health. A few years ago, as a meat lover and of farming lineage, I reluctantly decreased my meat intake for environmental reasons. It is well documented that the global meat industry has a large environmental impact; a combination of many factors including the direct gas production from the animals, water use, crop growth for animal feed (reported widely that >50% of all crops grown is for animal feed), deforestation for the crop growth and much more. There is a general scientific consensus that we need to eat less meat for the health of our planet1,2.

It’s also become clear that decreasing meat intake can have a positive impact on human health. There is lots of research out there, which shows that meat can have a negative impact on health (increasing risks of heart disease, diabetes and cancer)3. However where the research often falls down is that it often doesn’t assess the quality of meat. Processed meat (sausages, bacon, ham, hot dogs, deli meats, pepperoni etc) is the real villain, having large negative health sequalae4. It is also likely that poor-quality mass-produced meats are those that end up in processed meats.

On the flip side high quality meats are better for you, and as discussed by James Rebank in his book English Pastoral cattle can improve the quality of our un-farmable grazing land in Britain (by aerating the soil from the hooves, and fertilising with their faeces). So, what I am not arguing for is mass adoption of vegetarianism, rather an acknowledgement of the implication of our purchasing choices and if possible a move towards less, high quality local meats.

As I took another sip of my white wine I became aware of further collaborating truths. Alcohol, as enjoyable as it is, has a negative impact on our health. But what I had never considered was the environmental impact. As study in Sweden has shown alcohol intake their accounts for a production of 52kg CO2 per person per year. If our alcohol intake in Scotland was the same this would account for 1% of the countries CO2 emissions, but unfortunately alcohol intake here is much higher. For a product with no functional benefit to our survival this is a significant contribution to global emission. So will I go tee-total? No. But will I decrease my alcohol intake? Certainly.

What is my point here? Firstly our everyday choices effect both our own health and that of our planet. An awareness of these can only be good for us. But with meat and alcohol being some of lives pleasures, maybe we should aim to use them as occasional treats.

1.Djekic, I. (2015). Environmental impact of meat industry–current status and future perspectives. Procedia Food Science, 5, 61-64.

2.Schiermeier, Q. (2019). Eat less meat: UN climate-change report calls for change to human diet. Nature, 572(7769), 291-293.

3. Wolk, A. (2017). Potential health hazards of eating red meat. Journal of internal medicine, 281(2), 106-122.

4. Rohrmann, S., & Linseisen, J. (2016). Processed meat: the real villain?. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 75(3), 233-241.

5. Hallström, E., Håkansson, N., Åkesson, A., Wolk, A., & Sonesson, U. (2018). Climate impact of alcohol consumption in Sweden. Journal of Cleaner Production, 201, 287-294.

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