How reducing meat eating can save the planet


It’s not necessary for everyone to become vegetarian, but cutting meat and dairy consumption will help the world to meet its 2050 carbon emissions targets. The problem can be tackled, but only if the world’s Governments stop ignoring the issue and subsidizing cheap agricultural products.

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Few people appreciate the direct link between eating too much meat and dairy products and climate change. The arguments are quite scientific and not widely understood. And there’s also something of a taboo on discussing the subject. In rich Western nations, preaching about how eating a lot of meat is bad for both one’s health and the planet provokes resentment. Meanwhile, in developing nations, the rising middle-classes can at last afford to eat more meat, which was previously a luxury. It’s not surprising that Governments worldwide duck out of tackling the problem.

The scientists are not saying everyone has to become vegetarian. But they do say we need to eat much less meat and dairy. Otherwise, the researchers for the new report from UK thinktank Chatham House say that on current trends, the global agriculture sector will consume the world’s entire carbon budget by 2050. This would mean that every other sector, including energy, industry and transport, would have to be zero carbon to keep global temperature rises below the United Nations’ target of 2 degrees Celsius, which the report says would become an “impossible” goal. It concludes: “Dietary change is essential if global warming is not to exceed 2C.”

The lack of awareness of the problem is evident from the results of an Ipsos MORI survey quoted in the Chatham House report. Although livestock produces more greenhouse gases than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined, twice as many people think transport is the bigger contributor to global warming. Meanwhile, appetite for meat is soaring as the global population swells and becomes more able to afford it. Meat consumption is on track to rise 75% by 2050, and dairy 65%, compared with 40% for cereals. By 2020, China alone is expected to be eating 20 million tonnes more of meat and dairy a year.

The report’s lead author, Rob Bailey, said: “Preventing catastrophic warming is dependent on tackling meat and dairy consumption, but the world is doing very little. Most people are aware of the role of deforestation, transport and power generation in contributing to climate change, but they have no understanding of the role of livestock.”

The scientific arguments are outlined in the report. Livestock production is the largest source of both methane and nitrous oxide, two of the most damaging greenhouse gases. Nitrous oxide is found in manure and fertilizers, whereas the methane emissions come from burping cattle and sheep. On current trends, emissions of both methane and nitrous oxide will double by 2055 from 1995 levels. Excessive livestock farming also causes deforestation when forests are cut down to provide pasture, or become degraded through animal grazing. This releases more CO2 into the atmosphere.

Some agricultural products are especially carbon-intensive. Beef farming is roughly 150 times less efficient than soy farming per unit of protein. Beef and dairy farming together account for 65% of livestock greenhouse gases. Pork and chicken produce fewer emissions, but the level is still around 25 times greater than soy.

Bad for health

“In industrialized countries we eat just under 200g of meat a day, which is almost 1.5kg of meat per week. It’s far too much – more than twice the highest levels recommended for our health – and developing countries are moving towards the same levels,” said Bailey. “If global populations were on average to eat according to the Harvard Healthy Diet, we’d have a much better chance of limiting global warming to less than 2C, as well as decreasing levels of obesity, cancer and heart disease.”

The release of carbon emissions is not the only reason to reduce meat and dairy consumption. Farming to produce animals is also vastly less efficient in its use of water than growing crops for human consumption. A 2014 European Commission study found that the agriculture industry consumed 89% of the European water footprint. This startling fact prompted the researchers to calculate the water footprint for three different diets: Current European diets, ones corresponding to healthy guidelines and vegetarian diets.

In all corners of Europe, the healthy guideline diets had significantly lower water footprints, but the vegetarian ones were slightly better still. In the Mediterranean countries, for example, the water footprint for the healthy diet was 30% less than the average diet. For vegetarian diets, it was 41% less. A generation ago, the gulf would have been narrower, but meat consumption has soared in this part of Europe. It has reached 58.9kg per year, which is three times the recommended 20.8 kg. Of course, obesity levels have followed the same curve on the graph. Even in Eastern Europe, where there is less meat consumption than in other parts of Europe, the water footprint dropped by 11% for the healthy diet and 27% for vegetarian diets.

The co-author of the EC report, Davy Vanham, said: “Although agriculture takes up 90% of the water footprint in the EU, as well as in the US and many other countries, very little is talked about it. The focus is on domestic use so we get campaigns to take showers instead of baths, or use more water-efficient washing machines. But if we want to save a lot of water we have to look at food consumption. Meat, sugar and milk all require a lot more water to produce. Eating healthier diets is a win-win situation. You save a lot of water and also have a much healthier population, saving on healthcare costs. The best solution would be vegetarian diets though it’s impossible to turn the whole world vegetarian.”

Cheap meat

Vanham says the rise in meat eating is down to industrialized methods that have made it cheaper to buy. But the supermarket price does not reflect the real cost. “Two generations ago people ate meat once a week, especially after World War II. But in the EU, and also in the US, they developed a very industrialized and heavily subsidised model of food production. Pollution is not included in the price, but the industrialized process is very polluting. There are all the greenhouse gas emissions, but also the use of antibiotics. Another big problem is that bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics because off the industrial meat industry.”

Governments worldwide remain wilfully blind to the polluting effects of agriculture. Negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have focused on deforestation and overlooked livestock emissions. Out of the 40 developed countries in the UNFCCC, only Bulgaria and France have established targets for livestock emissions and just eight of the 55 developing countries to submit mitigation plans mentioned livestock. Brazil was the only one to establish targets to reduce livestock emissions and New Zealand was unique in including livestock in its cap and trade scheme. “Governments are unwilling to legislate because of the fear of a commercial backlash. The food industry in the EU is very big and lobbying is powerful at a national basis,” Vanham said.

The dearth of policies to tackle livestock emissions is in marked contrast to the abundance of financial support for meat and dairy producers. Livestock subsidies among OECD countries amounted to US$53 billion in 2013. In the EU, cattle subsidies alone exceeded US$731 million, around US$190 per cow. This generosity is not confined to industrialized countries. In China, for example, pork subsidies exceeded US$22 billion in 2012, equivalent to about US$47 per pig.

‘If we want to save a lot of water we have to look at food consumption. Meat, sugar and milk all require a lot more water to produce. Eating healthier diets is a win-win situation. You save a lot of water and also have a much healthier population, saving on healthcare costs,’ Davy Vanham, European Commission researcher

Rob Bailey said: “The fact no consumer has any understanding of this issue makes it difficult to achieve voluntary behaviour change and the fact that governments and businesses and NGOs don’t really see it as their place to interfere in lifestyle choices because they fear accusations of ‘Nanny State-ism’ means everyone is reluctant to provide consumers with that information, or tell people what to do.”

Multi-pronged approach

Bailey says the problem has to be attacked using a multi-pronged approach. “It’s not something that can be solved simply by environmental campaign groups, or supermarkets doing labelling, or governments interfering. It needs all of those measures and it also needs to be tailored to the national context. In some countries there may be higher consumer acceptance of taxes on meat, but in other countries tax is almost a swear word. There’s no doubt that fewer subsidies and higher prices would reduce meat and dairy consumption.”

One promising conclusion from the Chatham House research is that increasing awareness spurs changes in behaviour. “The first thing to do is close the awareness gap. When there’s a greater understanding of the impact of livestock emissions, supermarket labelling and other initiatives will have more influence,” said Bailey.

Another positive finding was that awareness of the influence of food choice on climate change was highest in the developing countries where demand is forecast to increase the most, including China, India and Brazil. “These nations showed greater consideration of emissions in food choices, and a greater willingness to modify their consumption than western countries. This offers a glimmer of hope,” said Bailey.

‘In industrialized countries we eat just under 200g of meat a day, which is almost 1.5kg of meat per week. It’s far too much – more than twice the highest levels recommended for our health – and developing countries are moving towards the same levels,’ Rob Bailey, Chatham House.

Vanham also sees education as the way forward. Governments, he says, have a large role to play in educating the next generations about healthy foods. “Arguments about emissions and water are complex matters, but there’s a lot of potential to make children at an early certain age more environmentally aware. At my school in the 1980s we never heard anything about it.”

Bailey says governments must get over their fears of tackling the problem. Government campaigns in the past have made a clear difference to public health. The best example is the smoking campaigns, which shifted consumer behaviour dramatically. “But they have to get over the fear of being accused of being Nanny State-ish and the fear of a consumer backlash. When the livestock sector is responsible for just under 15% of global emissions it doesn’t make any sense not to have any policy, or strategy, for dealing with that,” said Bailey.

SALT’s seven steps to reduce meat consumption

  1. 1. The United Nations should make it mandatory for all nations to include livestock emissions in their carbon emissions targets. This needs to be an urgent matter for discussion at the Paris talks this year. It is hypocritical to continue to focus on other sources of carbon emissions without addressing agriculture because of the fear of a consumer backlash. Agricultural emissions should also be included in cap and trade schemes. Various countries have adopted emission trading systems, but so far only New Zealand has taken the livestock sector into account.
  2. 2. Governments have to get over their fear of Nanny State-ism as ignorance of the issues is widespread and guidance is needed. For example, national programmes to raise awareness at school level about caring for the environment should include the dangers of agricultural emissions. It could also be mandatory for supermarkets to include carbon footprint labelling on food. The measure would have some effect on consumers, but the main reason is to put pressure on manufacturers to look for additional ways to reduce emissions. This is true of eco-labelling in general.
  3. 3. Individuals must eat more responsibly. We can all make a small difference. Research shows the environmental impact of beef dwarfs that of other meat, including chicken and pork. Experts say eating less red meat would be a better way for people to cut carbon emissions than giving up their cars. Vegetarianism is an even better alternative. A University of Oxford study found that meat-rich diets – defined as more than 100g per day – resulted in 7.2kg of carbon dioxide emissions. In contrast, both vegetarian and fish-eating diets caused about 3.8kg of CO2 per day, while vegan diets produced only 2.9kg.
  4. 4. Rethink subsidy programmes to the livestock sector, which needs to shrink.  The removal of livestock production subsidies is also likely to improve technical efficiency. In New Zealand, a drastic reduction in agricultural subsidies during the 1980s helped create one of the world’s most efficient and environmentally friendly ruminant livestock industries.
  5. 5. Environmental externalities need to be factored into policy frameworks. Livestock holders who provide environmental services need to be compensated, either by the immediate beneficiaries, such as downstream users enjoying improved water quantity and quality, or by the general public. Services that could be rewarded include land management or land uses that restore biodiversity, and pasture management that provides for carbon sequestration.
  6. 6. Water is grossly under-priced in most countries, and the development of water markets and various types of cost recovery would correct the situation. Suggested instruments include grazing fees, and better institutional arrangements for controlled and equitable access.
  7. 7. Consider higher taxes on meat and dairy products based on emissions releases. Rising prices would cause reduction in consumption, with health benefits as well as carbon reductions.
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PHOTO CREDIT: Oscar Avellaneda-Cruz from flickr