Mee(a)ting Issues with the British Ecological Society – Why I boycotted the 2015 Annual Meeting

Normally at this time of year I would be recovering from the enjoyable after-effects of the British Ecological Society (BES) annual meeting, too much talking, too much eating, too much coffee, too much beer and wine and not enough sleep.

This year however, I denied myself the traditional end to the academic year as I decided to boycott the meeting. As someone who has, since 1977, missed only a handful of meetings, this was a big personal sacrifice, but I felt very strongly that I needed to make a protest , hence the one person boycott! So what prompted this action?

I was fully intending on attending the meeting in Edinburgh, having spent ten years living in Peebles and working at the Forest Research Station at Roslin, Edinburgh is full of pleasant memories for me. I logged on to the site to register for the meeting and was stunned and annoyed to come across this statement:

Food Policy In an effort to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the BES has decided to remove all farmed ruminant meat from its catering. Ruminants and their farming are key producers of methane. We run several large events a year, serving thousands of meals to participants and are keenly aware of the impact of human activity on natural systems. We will continue to cater for non-vegetarians, but will remove farmed ruminant meat from menus and will also only serve MSC certified fish. We take seriously our commitment to greening our events and hope you understand and support our decision. For more information on the background to this decision, read the paper by Ripple, W.J. et al: Ruminants, climate change and climate policy. – See more at:

Two things about this statement really got my goat (ruminant pun intended) – first, the non-democratic nature of this decision, the membership were never polled about this and second, the patronising and insulting statement, “We will continue to cater for non-vegetarians” This is tantamount to the comments by the vegan Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Kerry McArthy who suggested that meat eaters should be treated like smokers. As ecologists, and presumably all scientists with some biological background, the people running the BES know that we are omnivores by nature, look at our dentition and gut structure folks!

Meat Fig 1


I would also point out that the UK dairy herd is bigger (1.9 million) than the beef herd (1.5 million) and that you can’t have one without the other. The UK is the world’s tenth largest producer of milk (2.2%). So why not ban all dairy products and make delegates drink their tea and coffee black or with a vegetable based milk substitute? What about ruminant derived products? Whilst we are about it, how about penalizing delegates wearing wooly jumpers, leather shoes, leather belts and carrying their cash in leather wallets, purses and handbags?

I raised my concerns via Twitter and Facebook and did have a minor discussion with Andrew Beckerman, the chair of the Meetings Committee, but to no real satisfaction. I pointed out that why should people who enjoy beef and lamb be singled out, when those BES members who fly and drive everywhere were not targeted? I made the decision many years ago that I would not fly if at all possible, basically unless work dictated it, and as a result have flown (including return flights) only six times in the last twenty years. I recycle obsessively and my foreign travel is by train, ferry or Skype! So yes, tropical field work and international conferences on the other side of the world are a thing of the past, but I see no need for flying visits by western ecologists to indulge in brief exotic field work. Either go for the duration of the study or stay at home and discover the wonders of your own back yard, or rather than be an ecological imperialist, trust the local scientists to collect the data for you to number crunch. Or if you feel that your presence is indispensable, then go by ship and take the opportunity to write and read papers on the way 🙂

Although Ripple et al (2014) make a convincing case for slowing down greenhouse gas emissions by reducing ruminant production they do so from the highly biased minority viewpoint of those with “ecological privilege” (Nevins, 2014). They thus singularly fail to address the equally effective and more attainable actions that can be made by targeting travel, especially by air and private motoring Girod et al., 2012). There are over 100,000 flights a day and air travel is set to double by the year 2050 despite the fact that fossil fuels (oil at any rate) will run out in about 40-50 years (the former estimate according to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, the latter by BP). One might ask then why do we have politicians wanting to build more airports and runways? As an ecologist this does not compute, but then looking at how many of my colleagues boast about their cheap flights compared with my more expensive rail trips, perhaps it does. As Nevins (2014) points out, a privileged few enjoy the ability to travel quickly and comfortably (although I would dispute the comfortably) around the world to conferences and field sites and this has a very significant effect on carbon emissions. Nevins calculated the carbon emissions generated by the Association of American Geographers to attend their 2011 meeting in Seattle as 5,352 metric tons, pointing out that the annual total per capita carbon emissions from energy consumption in Haiti is 210 kg and for Bangladesh 290 Kg, i.e. the air travel alone to and from the Seattle conference per delegate was more about three times the total annual emissions of an average Haitian or Bangladeshi which by any standard is unbalanced and profligate. Whilst other travel forms are amenable to very large future reductions in carbon emissions by improvements in technology, the evidence is that air travel will prove intractable and that the only feasible way forward is to drastically reduce flights made (Girod et al., 2012, 2013). Given that only 2-3% of the world’s population flies internationally (Peeters et al., 2006), this would seem a realistic aim and cause less harm to livelihoods and ways of life of people in less developed nations (note that 31 % of the global cattle herd are found in India, compared with 0.35% in the UK – Table 1). Unfortunately, although many of this wealthy airborne 2-3% are keen to embrace ‘light green habits’ such as home recycling and composting, they are the most likely to indulge in long distance flights and not want to be denied the ‘privilege’ of flying (Barr et al., 2010).

I don’t think that it is in the BES’s remit to impose life style choices on its membership by banning particular food groups. If the BES directorate want to make an environmental point using food as an example, then perhaps they should concentrate on food miles instead and serve locally sourced meat and seasonal vegetables. Delegates at the Edinburgh meeting could then have enjoyed the excellent Scottish beef that is available served with ‘tatties and neeps’ and perhaps also have experienced that particularly Scottish delicacy, the Scotch pie 🙂

Meat Fig 2

I do hope that the BES will reconsider their food policy as I would hate to have to miss any of the many excellent meetings scheduled for 2016.


Barr, S., Shaw, G., Coles, T. & Prillwitz, J. (2010) “A holiday is a holiday”: Practicing sustainability, home and away. Journal of Transport Geography, 18, 474-481.

Girod, B., van Vuuren, D.P. & Detman, S. (2012) Global travel within the 2oC climate target. Energy Policy, 45, 152-166.

Girod, B., van Vuuren, D.P. & Hertwich, E.G. (2013) Global climate targets and future consumption level: an evaluation of the required GHG intensity. Environmental Research Letters, 8, 014016.

Nevins, J. (2014) Academic jet-setting in a time of climate destabilization: ecological privilege and professional geographic travel.   The Professional Geographer, 66, 298-310.

Peeters, P., Gössling, S. & Becken, S. (2006) Innovation towards tourism sustainability: Climate change and aviation. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 1, 184-200

Ripple, W.J., Smith, P., Haberl, H., Montzka, S.A., McAlpine, C. & Boucher, D.H. (2014) Ruminants, climate change and climate policy. Nature Climate Change, 4, 2-5.


Post script

Some meaty facts for the British Ecological Society to ruminate upon.

Meat Fig 3

The global cattle herd peaked in 1990 and has been declining, albeit gradually, ever since.

Meat Fig 4

There are approximately 1 billion sheep in the world, of which 187,000,000 (18%) are in China; in the UK there are 22,900,000. There are 674,000,000 goats in the world, most of which are in the tropics.

Post post script

Annual UK total GHG  emissions from meat eating are 17,052,000 metric tonnes per year, CO2 emissions alone from cars is 164,500,000, almost ten times more and aviation not far behind agriculture.

UK emissions

Post post post script

Here is a link to a paper that suggests increasing beef production could lower greenhouse gas emissions, at least in Brazil –


Filed under Bugbears, Uncategorized

36 responses to “Mee(a)ting Issues with the British Ecological Society – Why I boycotted the 2015 Annual Meeting

  1. You really do provoke people to think. I have no idea what my personal footprint is or whether I could make a difference. No excuse but something I obviously need to think about. Amelia

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Blaming cattle for global warming is ridiculous: yes, cows produce methane. So do wild ruminants–but I don’t see suggestions to kill off all the wild African ruminants . But humans produce more greenhouse gases than the animals, and the release of methane from high-latitude soils as permafrost disappears is huge.

    Granted, I don’t like the way most beef is produced, and don’t think clearing forest for cattle pasture is good or sustainable. But grasslands are ecologically important in many ways, and grasslands need to be grazed or mown (ideally grazed, as this returns nitrogen to the soil.) I’ve had beef cattle on pasture that was improving in quality (grass coverage, less erosion in downpours, etc.) with appropriate stocking levels and management (HILF) and seen it work on both smaller and larger herds. Range-fed beef is delicious; the animals are healthier, and this is appropriate use of land that otherwise will go to brush or desert without good grass cover. And every part of a cow has uses beyond beef on a plate. Similarly with sheep, coats, camelids: each species has multiple uses and when raised with good management on suitable land, has proven sustainability over thousands of years. (You can ruin a piece of land with bad management of soybeans or grain, too.)

    Organic farming methods also depend on animal manures as a component of soil amendment and sustainable fertility; if we want to get away from nonsustainable energy supplies, animals need to be part of the equation. Moving from non-renewable energy sources to renewables, increasing infrastructure for public transportation, reducing damage to ecosystems resulting from badly planned “development” …all would do more to mitigate the rise of greenhouse gases than turning vegan.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. HHGeek

    And yet again someone tries to criticise food supply rather than demand. I’m fed up of being told not to eat meat when I almost never fly, use public transport when it’s available, walk rather than drive, use consumer goods until they fail irreparably, rarely eat out of season other than citrus & avoid imported meat, and don’t have children. James Cameron (father of 4, squillion dollar tentpole film director) recently going off on one about people not being able to call themselves environmentalists if they still ate meat particularly wound me up. We will *never* fix the damage we’re doing to the environment & climate until we stop putting human desires ahead of human needs, and population size (“but it’s my _right_ to keep having kids”) has to be a major part of that. Reduce the demand & the supply will contract automatically.

    I can’t help feeling that meat production is a new diversionary tactic wrt climate change in an era of very low cost oil, which makes short-sighted types less pro renewable energy development. (Cynical, me?)

    I think you were absolutely right not to attend. Do you know if others did the same?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Peter Leckstein

    Simon, as a long standing member of BES, it pained me to read that such a distinguished member of our society felt impelled to boycott the annual meeting. I agree completely with your reasoning but I wish that you had attended the meeting and argued your case there. The As a scientific society BES needs to base its decisions on scientifically sound evidence rather than making policy by responding to lobby groups. If the society’s policies are not based on evidence it will no longer be taken seriously as a scientific body. Good luck in your crusade. Peter

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. Hi Simon, well done for standing up for reason.

    As far as I can see, this current fashion for attacking meat-eating on grounds of some supposed effect on climate change is based on a series of myths and half-truths being promoted by the Animal Rights lobby eg the “Cowspiracy” movie.

    In fact, agricultural practices used to grow *plant* based foods are one of the major causes of soil erosion and CO2 in the atmosphere. Ploughing and digging to raise bread-wheat, potatoes or vegetables for example oxidise vast quantities of soil carbon, depleting, eroding and degrading soils. Rice cultivation in paddies generates large quantities of methane too. Refined carbohydrates from plants are also increasingly recognised as disastrous for human health, associated with obesity and diabetes.

    In contrast, natural pasture-based animal raising – done correctly – can actually lock away large quantities of carbon in the soil and even potentially help reverse climate change if done at scale. The world’s great grassland ecosystems used to teem with vast herds of ruminant animals, in the Americas for example the bison covered the land until foolish European colonists nearly exterminated them. By working with such natural models we can both feed ourselves healthily, foster increased biodiversity, regenerate our soils and soak up CO2 out of the atmosphere.

    There are a number of sources of information to follow up for those of us interested in conservation approaches, including the “Carbon Nation” website:

    The “Grazing Amazing” youtube channel has plenty of UK examples:

    “Who says Cattle are Criminals?”

    All the best with trying to communicate with the BES, hopefully they’ll come to see the evidence in this.

    No Dig Allotments – putting carbon back into the soil.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Friday links: how to review grants, the BES vs. beef, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful post. I would like to address some of your main points, because I think your decision to boycott based on this policy was misguided.

    The first is your point that there are other, more serious sources of CO2 emissions, so why bother with this step? That argument is analogous to the position that people should not turn off their lights because they spend more energy heating their homes than they do lighting them. By this rationale, any step besides the largest one is unimportant. While I of course agree that energy production and transportation release too much CO2, farm raised ruminates do too, and if there is a way to reduce that then we should take it. Unless we decide that conferences are not worth the related CO2 emissions, we have to accept that people will travel to them. Given that there will continue to be conferences, it is very reasonable for the conference organizers to make unilateral decisions to reduce emissions where they are able to, as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others (which leads me to my next point…)

    Your decision to boycott seems influenced by the affront to your ability to decide for yourself what actions to take to reduce CO2 emissions. I may be reading between the lines, but this seems like a reaction to the perceived paternalism of the conference organizers and the removal of your right to self determination. I disagree that your rights have been violated. You are welcome to decide for yourself how to best address your personal CO2 footprint. Pack the Scotch pie in your lunch bag. Likewise, the organizers are free to, and I would even say obligated to, make decisions about reasonable steps to reduce the environmental impact of the society’s conference. The key word is “reasonable” and in this case I think the inconvenience is small, the impact is small to medium, and the discussion it generates about the effect of ruminant gas production compared to other sources of pollution is valuable.

    There were a few other points in there that are likewise misplaced. For example, the fact that we are omnivores. We are many things: our evolutionary inheritance has predisposed us to many actions, but that does not dictate the morality of those actions. Suppose it were finally determined that are violent tendencies were 100% the result of ingrained behavioral programming- that would not affect the moral implications of murdering a person who belonged to a group that was competing for a common resource. Nor does the evolutionary advantage of infidelity affect the moral implications of betraying the trust of a loved one.

    Finally, I am still a consumer of beef. I know its effect and have taken steps to reduce my intake, along with many other steps to reduce my environmental impact. I hope my comments can add to a fruitful discussion about behavior, climate change, and the nanny state!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ben Phalan

    Thanks for raising this issue. I was prompted to respond after this post was linked to again on the Dynamic Ecology blog.

    I’ve been a BES member for ten years, and I fully support their decision to take farmed ruminant meat off the menu. The evidence is very clear that reducing consumption of animal products, especially those from ruminants, could do more than any other dietary change to reduce environmental impacts. See for example Machovina et al. (2015) Biodiversity conservation: The key is reducing meat consumption ( The BES have not even proposed making the meeting vegetarian, let alone vegan, and this small step seems to me very much in keeping with other efforts they are making to reduce the environmental impacts of their meetings. They can still serve chicken, pork, game and fish (the latter hopefully MSC-certified), so the inconvenience does not seem great.

    Your point about dairy is a good one, and I would love to see the BES make non-dairy alternatives to milk and cheese the default option. I also fully agree about flying – this is the biggest elephant in the room for most ecologists and conservation biologists seeking to reduce their carbon footprint ( Having said that, carbon is not everything, and to reduce biodiversity impacts, we really need to reduce our land footprint too, of which the majority is used for producing animal products.

    It seems to me that perhaps the issue here is more about the manner in which the decision was made, and whether there should be more discussion with the membership first. One way to do that would be to bring the discussion to the Bulletin – perhaps a point-counterpoint exchange? I am sure that Alan Crowden would be interested in a proposal along those lines. I’d be willing to contribute if that’s something you’d be interested in.


    • Thanks Ben, as you say my main beef was that the decision was made without consultation which I found rather irritating, to say the least; I have written to Alan about the possibility of a Bulletin-mediated exchange. Interestingly I have had private emails of support from vegetarians, who whilst supporting the beef/lamb ban, feel that I have a real point about the non-democratic decision-making process.


  10. As a couple of commentators have noted, there’s a link between grazing animals and grassland biodiversity that would be broken if the BES’s ruminant boycott was followed through to a national conclusion. This is particularly true of upland calcareous grassland, some of our most important habitats from an international perspective. What does the BES imagine will happen to that grassland if it’s not grazed by farmers or conservation organisations?

    There’s a pattern emerging here. Both you and I have commented on biases within the BES in relation to its publications, and it seems to be becoming increasingly undemocratic, which is bizarre given that participatory democracy in such organisations in easier now than it’s ever been – just a SurveyMonkey click away!


  11. Ben Phalan

    Thanks Jeff. It doesn’t look to me as if the BES is aiming to put an end to the entire ruminant livestock industry in the UK. Nor could serving a few hundred people non-ruminant foods for a few days have such an effect. Similarly, I have moved to a vegan diet – because I have concluded that avoiding animal-based foods is the most effective way I can reduce the impact of my diet on biodiversity – but this does not mean that I think all livestock farming should end. What I do think is that there are compelling arguments to greatly reduce the number of livestock, and if we want to do that, we’ll need to eat less meat and dairy.

    Would you not agree that the effect of livestock farming on UK biodiversity has been predominantly negative? It’s responsible for much of the country’s lowland grassland habitat being fertilised, manured and reseeded into green deserts of lush rye-grass, clover and little else. Many parts of the uplands are over-grazed. Furthermore, the footprint of animal farming extends overseas – I’ve seen an estimate that 40% of the protein in animal feed in the UK is derived from soybeans, grown at great environmental cost in South America.

    It’s true that some UK habitats of conservation interest benefit from grazing. But how many livestock are needed, for example, to maintain the upland calcareous grasslands you mentioned? Making a back-of-the-envelope calculation, 22,000 cattle or 110,000 sheep would be enough (with stocking rates of 1 or 5 animals per hectare, respectively, for half the year, over the UK’s 22,000 hectares of this habitat type). In the UK right now, there are around 10,000,000 cattle and 22,000,000 sheep. Even if my estimate is wrong by orders of magnitude, the argument that we need all these animals for conservation doesn’t seem to add up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Ben – yes, agreed, the impact of livestock farming on UK biodiversity has been predominantly negative, but then you could say that about all modern UK farming! The area of farmland (often previously marginal and uncultivated) that have been turned over to crops has also increased enormously since the 19th century. If you’ve not seen it, Paul Brassley’s paper has some fascinating statistics in it:

      So the question remains – what was the BES trying to achieve by banning ruminant meat (but not other ruminant products) from the conference menu?



      Liked by 1 person

      • Ben Phalan

        Hi Jeff, sure, all farming has impacts, but we need to eat something. So to reduce the impacts involved in producing food, it makes sense to cut down on the products that are most demanding of land and other resources. Various studies (e.g. here and here have found that beef is far more land-demanding than the alternatives, so it makes sense to focus there.

        Thanks for the link to Paul Brassley’s paper – I had not seen it. It’s worth remembering that some of the crop expansions he describes (e.g. for silage and maize) are of livestock fodder crops. Globally, about a third of cereal production is used as livestock feed. I don’t know what the figure is for the UK, but Brassley states that in 1985, livestock in the UK were fed 16 million tonnes of feedstuffs. By now, it is surely much greater than that. In the USA, two-thirds of the cereals grown are fed to livestock. So, the land footprint of animal agriculture is far larger than just the fields on which those animals are grazed.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Ben – yes, the Brassley paper is very interesting and deserves to be more widely known: we drew heavily on it for our 2014 assessment of UK pollinator extinctions in Science. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to update the output figures and see where we are at the moment.

        Regarding arguments for not farming livestock – full disclosure – I was a very strict vegetarian for about 15 years and know the arguments very well, and agree up to a point. However, a lot of the arguments around land and carbon footprints seem to me to be very simplistic and don’t take into account wider environmental costs, particularly for crop production (the majority of which doesn’t go to feed livestock). Those costs include things like use of pesticides and herbicides, soil erosion and sediment build up in waterways, CO2 capture and other ecosystem services provided by even species poor grazing land, etc. A full accounting has not been done as far as I’m aware.

        Personally my response is to eat less meat (certainly red meat) but not to go back to giving it up entirely. I think we need a mixed food economy.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ben Phalan

        Hi Jeff, thanks for the interesting exchange. I agree that a mixed food economy makes sense, but with a far lower number of livestock than we have at present. I think there are roles for people to eat “less and better” meat and dairy, as you do (and as the BES seems to be proposing), and also for others to avoid it entirely, both of which could help to move us in the right direction.

        Liked by 2 people

      • although I am a ruminant eater I only eat organic UK produced vegetables and fruit and meat – I suspect that most vegetarians can’t say the same 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Dear Simon,

    You are spot on when commenting on travel. Many (perhaps even the vast majority) well-informed ecologists and environmental scientists don’t think twice about booking a long-distance vacation or attending that great conference (often to combine with a vacation-like experience). As has already been pointed out, it’s the elephant in the room. We could come a long way with attending more local conferences and taking vacation that does not involve air travelling. Thank you for all the links to scientific papers!

    When it comes to meat consumption, it is a complicate story, and I do not know the full science well. But generally speaking, a vegetarian diet provides for lower carbon footprint. The devil is of course in the details (where does the feed come from, how intense is the ruminant management, what vegetables does the vegetarian eat, etc).



    Liked by 1 person

  13. I have been literally puzzling over how to respond to this for over a month, and was pushed over the edge by the remark about this post by Jeremy Fox in Dynamic Ecology. Here are my thoughts.

    1. The choice to not serve certain kinds of food items at a conference is not “imposing a life style choice” on anybody. Just because they’re not serving certain kind of meat doesn’t mean that you are being forced to join a cult. They’re not forcing you to not eat meat, they’re just not serving it. That’s not so hard, is it?

    2. A comparison of the the carbon cost of meat to the carbon cost of travel to conferences isn’t helpful. To attend a conference, people *have to travel there.* However, while at the conference, there isn’t a specific requirement to consume a particular kind of food. Meeting require travel, but meetings don’t require diet. So to point to the carbon cost of a required element of the conference doesn’t help when you’re considering the carbon cost of an optional element.

    3. I would have liked to have seen a consideration of the scientific issue raised by the BES. This post goes to length to minimize and contextualize the impact of meat consumption, but also doesn’t consider the specific gains or reduced carbon emissions from the adoption of this policy. Because this is the stated reason of the BES, then evaluating it in terms of a “life style choice” isn’t helpful to the dialogue.

    4. I didn’t serve meat at my wedding. None of our family or friends boycotted the occasion (at least to our knowledge), even though some were resentful that we weren’t providing them with a kind of food that they are accustomed to being served. I wonder if any of our family members, who didn’t boycott our wedding, would be boycotting a professional conference for want of meat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some good points Terry; what pushed me over the edge as it were, was the fact that it was not discussed with the membership beforehand; and that the discussion session about the policy was after the fact i.e. at the conference where the policy had been implemented rather than at the conference before the decision was made. If it had happened that way, then yes I would have been disappointed and resentful but I would have felt that at least I had been consulted and given a choice to object. As someone who has paid my dues to the BES since 1977, served on council and been on Editorial Boards, I feel that I, and the many others like me should have had a say. Not much to ask I think?


      • I think the decision about what kind of food to serve at a conference isn’t typically a high-level executive decision. (And I imagine if their agenda is pushing for social changes to reduce carbon emissions, then looking at senior leadership to sign off on them, it might slow the brakes.) I get that food is important to people. I am always surprised how many people get in my face about my own food choices even though it doesn’t affect them at all, always when I don’t even personally bring it up. So I get it that not having meat for a few days can be a real problem for some.


  14. This recent post (and the very revealing graph) by Nacho Bartomeus is very relevant to this discussion:

    Liked by 1 person

  15. A

    Not a whole lot to add and late to the game, but still wanted to drop a comment. I am shocked and disappointed that a scientific society would go for such an unbalanced, hypocritical, anti-scientific, conceited attitude, not to say anti-democratic and against the principles of a society that relies on active input from members to function.
    I’ve had this discussion a million times with less-than-informed (but very patronizing) vegans. It seems very hard for them to understand that it’s not what one eats, but where food comes from. If everyone lived on stupid soy protein, the savannahs, cerrados and prairies would still continue to be torn apart for something else, because the problem is in the market, not the product. Which is easily forgotten by those who don’t live in the middle of the areas where their food is produced (hi, third-world country denizen here, my state is all soybeans, cheers).
    Here are some further thoughts. I hope your organizing committees eventually come to their senses and decide to do something that actually shows some ecologist-level thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

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