German government agency bans meat from official functions

The government says it’s for environmental reasons, but critics are complaining of violation of personal freedom.

No more pork knuckle with sauerkraut for official government functions. CREDIT: iStock
No more pork knuckle with sauerkraut for official government functions. CREDIT: iStock

German cuisine might be most famous for its sausages and schnitzels, but a new government rule means attendees at official Ministry of Environment government functions held will see a lot more vegetables on their plates in the future.

Earlier this week, Barbara Hendricks, Germany’s environment minister, announced that the government would be instituting a ban on meat at official functions held by the Ministry of Environment, citing the environmental burden of meat production as the reason for the ban.

Animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change and environmental degradation globally. Livestock like cattle produce methane as a byproduct of digesting their food, and methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas — 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. Globally, the livestock sector alone accounts for 14.5 percent of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s not just the methane from cow burps or manure that contributes to animal agriculture’s carbon footprint, it’s the fossil fuels required to ship, process, package, and refrigerate the meat as well.

Animal agriculture also contributes to land and water degradation by encouraging the clearing of large tracts of land for livestock grazing and production of animal feed. In Brazil, one of the world’s largest cattle producers, huge swaths of Amazon rain forest have been cut down to make way for cattle range land and soy plantations, meant to grow feed for cattle. And grazing can also lead to soil degradation, with the United Nations estimating that some 20 percent of the world’s grazing lands have become degraded since 1945. Degraded soil doesn’t hold nutrients as well as healthy soil, leading to increased agricultural and nutrient runoff and water pollution. And degraded soil also doesn’t store carbon as well as healthy soil, which in turn contributes to climate change.

A study released in August of 2015 went so far as to suggest that meat eaters are the number one cause of worldwide species extinction, due in part to habitat destruction fueled by animal agriculture.

The German government is far from the first governing body to attempt to lessen animal agriculture’s environmental footprint by instructing citizens — in this case, government officials — to consume less meat.

China, one of the fastest growing markets for meat in the world, recently released dietary guidelines instructing residents to limit their daily intake of meat and eggs, and to prioritize proteins like fish and chicken over red meat. In 2016, the Dutch government did something similar, releasing dietary guidelines that urged residents to eat no more than two servings of meat per week. Similar guidelines have been released in the U.K. and Sweden, and both countries have cited the environmental impact of meat production in their reasoning for the guidelines. And last summer, the mayor of Turin, Italy, said that she wanted to make the city the first “vegetarian city” in the world by promoting restaurants and producers that specialize in vegetarian and vegan diets.

A few years ago, the United States almost did something similar by changing its USDA guidelines to include issues of sustainability and the environment — issues that would have lead the guidelines to suggest a reduction in meat consumption. The U.S. livestock industry sprang into action, urging the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services to reject the revised guidelines. Ultimately, the livestock lobby prevailed, and the U.S. guidelines were published in October of 2015 without any mention of sustainability or limiting meat consumption.

Germany’s new policy seems to be inciting similar criticism from political rivals. Hendricks, the woman behind the ban, is a member of the Social Democrats (SPD), which is challenging the Christian Democrats (CDU), Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, in upcoming Chancellor elections. The CDU has seized on the meat ban, arguing that it shows the SPD would be willing to infringe on the rights of private citizens.

The SPD party disagreed, arguing that it was the Environment Ministry’s responsibility to set an example of sustainability for the country.

“We’re not tell anyone what they should eat,” the environment ministry said in a statement published by the Telegraph. “But we want to set a good example for climate protection, because vegetarian food is more climate-friendly than meat and fish.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled German Minister for the Environment Barbara Hendricks last name. ThinkProgress regrets the error.