People should give up eating meat to halt climate change, according to Lord Stern of Brentford, a leading authority on global warming.
Lord Stern, author of the 2006 Stern Review on the cost of tackling global warming, predicts that eating meat could in the future become as socially unacceptable as drink driving.
Livestock farming has come under fire in recent years from environmental campaigners because methane from cattle and pigs is a significant source of greenhouse gases.
Lord Stern, a former chief economist of the World Bank, believes that the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December should call for an increase in the price of meat and other foods that contribute to climate change.
In an interview with The Times, he said: “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”
He added: “I think it’s important that people think about what they are doing and that includes what they are eating.
“I am 61 now and attitudes towards drinking and driving have changed radically since I was a student. People change their notion of what is responsible.
“They will increasingly ask about the carbon content of their food.” Meat producers reacted angrily to the suggestions.
Jonathan Scurlock, of the National Farmers Union, said: “Going vegetarian is not a worldwide solution. It’s not a view shared by the NFU. Farmers in this country are interested in evidence-based policymaking. We don’t have a methane-free cow or pig available to us.”
Methane is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a global warming gas. UN figures suggest that meat production is responsible for about 18 per cent of global carbon emissions, including the destruction of forest land for cattle ranching and the production of animal feeds.
However, British farmers say more money and support is needed to maintain the traditional countryside in the face of increased environmental demands from government.
New climate change targets to cut greenhouse gases by 80 per cent by 2050 will require farms to reduce methane produced by cows, cut use of fossil fuels and use less polluting fertilisers.
Landowners fear that the rules will add to increasing red tape from Europe and competition from abroad to make it even more difficult to make a living out of farming.
Up to 20,000 delegates from 192 countries are due to attend the UN conference in the Copenhagen, which aims to thrash out a deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to prevent an increase in global temperatures of more than 2 degrees centigrade.