Life

Liz Bonnin on the meat industry: 'I can see myself getting into complete vegetarianism very soon'

Liz Bonnin investigates a new and shocking environmental crisis in her powerful documentary Meat: A Threat To Our Planet? She's simply here to present the facts - after that it's up to us, she tells Gemma Dunn.

Liz Bonnin next to a cornfield in Brazil
Gemma Dunn

WHEN hard-hitting BBC One documentary Drowning In Plastic aired last autumn, Liz Bonnin had no idea of the reaction it would cause.

The groundbreaking film – which highlighted the devastating global impact of plastic on our oceans and marine wildlife – saw the presenter in tears as she witnessed the horror of flesh-footed shearwater chicks vomiting up shards of plastic or seal pups strangled by fishing nets.

It was scenes such as these that drove viewers to take to social media, first to express their dismay, and more importantly to pledge change. And change, albeit slowly, is happening.

One year on, Bonnin (43) says she has her comrade to thank for paving the way.

"It was Blue Planet II and Sir David Attenborough who really had the impact with plastic," she insists, her film picking up where the devastating final episode of Blue Planet II left off, "that's why we called it 'the Blue Planet effect'.

"Our job was to further investigate the impact of plastics on the ocean, but we played a role in helping to further the conversation."

That she did. And she hopes to do the same with her new BBC project, too, Meat: A Threat To Our Planet?

With the UN recently branding meat "the world's most urgent problem", stating that our excessive consumption is pushing us to a climate catastrophe, the wildlife biologist (a meat-eater herself) embarks on an ambitious mission to uncover the true extent of this environmental "crisis".

Yet delving into a contentious subject matter doesn't come without its challenges, Bonnin admits.

"It took us more research to even get to the pre-production stage, just to cut through all the noise and to get the scientific consensus," elaborates the Paris-born star, who moved to Ireland when she was nine-years-old.

"Because there's a lot of scientists that would disagree with some of what we've said. But we worked like crazy to get to what is now accepted as being the scientific consensus and that is always the driving force of making a programme, particularly for the BBC – to make sure that we are deeply rooted in the scientific facts."

Taking her search far and wide, the 60-minute film sees Bonnin learning about the colossal growth of the meat industry, and the harrowing predictions of its effect on our planet's climate and resources.

Plus, in the US and Europe, she investigates how humans can continue to eat meat – how to rear it, how to feed it, how to graze it – without killing our planet.

On her travels, she meets characters on all sides of the debate – dietitians who believe that meat is an essential part of our lives; environmentalists drawing a road map to a meat-free world; and food scientists developing 'Frankenfood' meatless alternatives to our everyday meals.

She even takes to the skies above the Amazon rainforest where zoologists are urgently trying to save rare animal and plant species whose habitat is being cleared for cattle.

Visibly emotional on screen, the latter was a real eye-opener for Bonnin.

"I'm an animal biologist, I've presented environmental films for the BBC for 11 years now, science films, natural history films, and I thought I knew, number one, the value of the Amazon," she confides.

"I didn't really fully understand just how important that particular rainforest is for our survival, period. Case closed. There's no kind of debate about that.

"It's the lungs of the planet, it's a carbon store!" she relays, passionately.

"Each tree draws up a thousand litres a day to create what the indigenous people call 'flying rivers' over the treetops, which is a mist that then contributes to the rain cycle of our planet.

"They call it the beating heart, the circulatory system of the planet, and at the research stage, at my desk with my big mug of tea, what I relish is getting stuck in to all that stuff," she continues.

"There, I began to understand the role that the Amazon plays to our health, every single one of us, so by the time I was in that plane, it's hard to put into words the harrowing realisation of what each of us is responsible for," she warns.

"The stark realisation of just how much we're destroying it and what that means for your future."

So, how has the show affected her own meat consumption?

"I was already eating very little amount of meat, and I was conscious of buying organic, although organic has its own challenges..." Bonnin reasons. "But I've now stopped eating red meat altogether.

"It wasn't even a stage of going 'I must', I just naturally have lost the taste for it at the moment," she reveals.

"I saw these pigs in the barns and that was it for me; I think it's just propelled an inherent instinct without a big old, 'Right, that's it, I must force myself not to'," she muses.

"And to be honest with you, I can see myself getting into complete vegetarianism very soon. It's just a natural progression."

She continues: "I was at a climate talk with Chris Packham yesterday, he was talking about how it's a stage thing for most people, the more they learn.

"And I think that's part of the message here: we're not telling people what to do and to turn vegetarian, but I think inherently we are evolving in our understanding of how our relationship with the planet potentially needs a little bit of a harder look," she notes.

"If we can just make gradual changes, it will go a long way."

It's the reality of the impact of our modern world, she says simply.

"As the latest scientific research is saying, if we reduce to two portions of meat a week we could mitigate some of those impacts – that's the information and after that it's each and everybody's personal choice.

"Of course livelihoods come into it, economics comes into it, human health comes into it, welfare comes into it. But what we set out to make, and I hope what we achieved, is to inform and to educate about what exactly meat production does to the environment.

"From that there will be lots of tangential, hopefully, talks, more discussions and hopefully more programmes."

"Did we achieve the brief?" she wonders. "I hope we did."

:: Meat: A Threat To Our Planet? is available on BBC iPlayer now

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