Eating pig's feet and cow's stomach could save the planet

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Whether you’re a seasoned politician or 16-year-old campaigner, climate change is on everyone’s agenda. Last week, activists Extinction Rebellion brought central London to a standstill protesting climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, the risk of ecological collapse and, ultimately, human annihilation. If the situation is serious enough to make the British take to the streets, you know it’s not something to take lightly.

With so many people interested in the issue, it’s hardly surprising that everyone has their own idea about how to fix it. Historically, potential solutions have tended to focus on tangible artificial threats, such as fossil fuels and single-use plastics. However, there is a growing recognition among experts that the problem isn’t just with industries that have always seemed slightly evil. In fact, many are coming to the consensus that the single biggest issue facing the planet is not cars, planes or plastic bottles, but what we eat.

Over the past few years, dozens of studies have made it abundantly clear that one of the most effective steps we can take to limiting our carbon footprint is to pay much closer attention to what we put on our plate. Unfortunately for carnivores, most agree that this means eating less meat. Estimates from the United Nations suggest that the meat industry accounts for a whopping 14.5 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, which makes it even more damaging than the entire transport sector.

Many have suggested that the only sensible step is to completely stop our meat intake. Evidence of the industry’s impact, coupled with an increasingly nuanced debate around the ethics of eating animals, is converting more people than ever to a plant-based lifestyle. However, some scientists are suggesting that the key to saving the planet may not be in totally spurning any animal product. Rather, there is a growing community who believe that the problem lies not with eating meat in general, but being too choosy about the type of meat we will and won’t eat.

A new report from the American Chemical Society has suggested that meat-eaters could have a significant positive impact on the environment if more of us adopted the mantra of "nose to tail" eating. In the current market, customers have grown accustomed to having access to an endless supply of prime cuts. Steaks, chops and loins have become the standard, where once they might have been available only to a select few. The trouble with picky eating is that it is hopelessly inefficient. The environmental investment required to make one animal's worth of prime cuts is extortionately high, when we consider the amount of viable meat that consumers simply aren’t interested in and therefore gets wasted. In the current climate, this is unsustainable.

The American Chemical Society suggests a different approach to dining. A report published in their Environmental Science and Technology journal revealed that swapping more traditionally desirable cuts for offal, trotters and tripe could be one of the most effective ways we have of curtailing the damage that the industry as a whole is doing.

Focusing exclusively on Germany’s meat industry, researchers found that if 50 per cent more offal was eaten rather than thrown away during the slaughtering process, emissions as a whole could fall by as much as 14 per cent. In an industry that produces 5.81 billion tonnes of emissions around the world, a 14 per cent reduction would be extremely significant.

While the study lead, Professor Gang Liu of the University of Southern Denmark, acknowledged that reducing total meat production would be the most effective way to combat climate change, he also believes that this more pragmatic approach may ultimately be more realistic. In an interview with CNN, Liu claimed that there is "huge potential [to lower emissions] by eating more byproducts and reducing waste along the supply chain," adding that advocating the nose-to-tail diet was a more effective strategy than attempting to turn “the [entire] global population vegetarian."

While nose-to-tail eating may have fallen out of favour in many western economies, some restaurants have been proponents for years. Trevor Gulliver, who co-founded St. John, arguably the most famous nose-to-tail restaurant in the world, revealed to CNN that western countries "waste horrendous amounts of food,” yet remain largely unaware of “the potentially catastrophic effects of that."

A firm believer in using every available part of the animal, Gulliver added that, "offal opens up the sense of the whole beast to the Western world, gives greater value to those cuts and brings back greater skills into our kitchens." If more cooks adopted this attitude, it’s not difficult to imagine how the current situation may quickly change.

As is fast becoming painfully obvious, our growing environmental issue requires action. Sticking our heads in the sand as rising sea levels lap around our ankles isn’t going to solve anything. While an overnight switch to an entirely plant-based approach to eating may be too much to expect, the idea of eating things that sound a little less desirable offers a ready-made and easily actionable compromise. That what we’re compromising with also happens to be delicious is just an added bonus. In an age where good news is few and far between, eating more offal may be as close as we’re ever likely to get to a win-win.