Shock: Last week's headlines about vegetarians being bad for the planet turn out to be completely distorted. Anna Greer looks at how hard the media had to work to get it so deliberately wrong
Conservative media around the world flipped a collective bird at "smug" vegetarians last week, claiming that a report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund had found that changes to land use meant that a vegetarian diet was more harmful to the environment than eating meat.
The London Times reported that "Becoming a vegetarian can do more harm to the environment than continuing to eat red meat, according to a study of the impacts of meat substitutes such as tofu." The Daily Mail made even more sport out of the study's findings, announcing that "Meat free diets can be bad for the planet."
Unfortunately plenty of other mainstream media outlets, including the Australian, gleefully picked up this reading. In an I-told-you-so editorial, titled "Tuck in and save the planet", the Australian again ridiculed the idea that eating a lot of meat was a problem: "Now a study for environmental lobbyists WWF, a body not usually noted for its conservative viewpoint, concedes our argument was correct. The study, by Cranfield University, found that turning vegetarian can do more environmental harm than eating red meat."
In fact the study found nothing of the kind.
The WWF's study was titled How low can we go: An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050. After the reception the study got from the media its authors are not at all pleased at the way some editors have managed to turn their comprehensive research into a green light for business as usual.
"It's a good example of journalism clearly failing to serve their readers honestly," one of the study's authors, Dr Donal Murphy-Bokern, told newmatilda.com. "It leaves science in an impossible position."
What the study actually found was in fact very much in line with the broad argument made by environmentalists advocating a reduction in meat consumption. It found that the UK food system directly accounts for one fifth of the UK's carbon footprint, and that if indirect consequences such as deforestation are taken into account this rises to almost a third. According to the report, emissions from the food system are dominated by the livestock sector, and livestock rearing alone accounts for 57 per cent of agricultural emissions. Not surprisingly, the study found that reducing livestock consumption is the single most effective way of reducing the carbon footprint of the UK food system. UK meat consumption is more than twice the world average, and three times that of developing countries on a per capita basis.
"Removing meat from the diet and replacing it with plant foods with similar protein contents reduces the carbon footprint of diet by one fifth," Dr Murphy-Bokern said. "Removing all animal products removes nearly a third."
Red meat currently produces almost four times the emissions of vegetables and legumes in the UK at 19,400 kilo-tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions in primary production.
That's what it said, but what came out the end of the media churner was: The emissions involved in producing meat substitutes are quite high, so eating meat is the green choice.
How could this happen?