A few years ago I switched to a plant-based diet. After reporting study after study spelling out the dire environmental impact of the overconsumption of meat in rich nations, it felt like the right thing to do and I have no regrets. It’s unlikely we’ll end the climate crisis without tackling the vast environmental hoofprint of livestock. And, according to new research, the climate benefit of cutting meat consumption could be double what we thought.
We already knew that cattle and other livestock use 83% of the world’s farmland for pasture and fodder, while producing just 18% of protein. In rich countries, 70% of food-related emissions come from livestock. What the new study shows is that if people in developed nations adopted a healthy, low-meat diet, a huge amount of carbon dioxide could be sucked out of the air by letting farmland revert back to natural forests and grasslands.
In fact, the carbon-reduction impact of the growing trees and plants roughly doubles the climate impact of just cutting meat-eating alone, which itself reduces agricultural emissions by more than 60%. That’s because we are talking about a lot of land being freed up: almost 350m hectares of pastureland and 80m more of cropland – about half the area of the US. The total savings would be about 100bn tonnes over time, equivalent to about 10 times China’s annual emissions today.
“It’s a remarkable opportunity for climate mitigation,”
says Paul Behrens from Leiden University in the Netherlands who led the study.
“But it would also have massive benefits for water quality, biodiversity, air pollution, and access to nature, to name just a few.”
I can hear your questions already, so let’s address a couple. First, the study did not assume everyone in the 54 nations analysed all went vegan, Instead, they used the “planetary health diet”, which allows a beef burger and two servings of fish a week, plus some dairy products every day.
Second, what about farmers? Behrens says:
“It will be vital that we redirect agricultural subsidies to farmers for biodiversity protection and carbon sequestration. We must look after farming communities to enable a just food transition.”
It is an extraordinary fact that almost 90% of the $540bn in global subsidies given to farmers every year lead to “harmful” outcomes, according to the UN.
The new research landed in Veganuary, which challenges people to go vegan for the first month of the year, and has seen record sign-ups this year. However, while replacements for meat and dairy products are handy for many plant-based eaters, they are sometimes criticised as being junk food.
Prof Guy Poppy, at the University of Southampton, UK, said last week:
“In the rush to develop marketable, attractive alternatives, please don’t get into the rush of creating plant-based junk food [that are] ultra processed and high-fat, high-sugar.”
Obviously, in an ideal world we would all eat meals freshly prepared from raw ingredients. But we don’t live in that world and I worry that this criticism of meat alternatives risks making health perfection the enemy of the environmental good.
Despite the urgency of the climate emergency, the world is not going to go vegan overnight. People will continue to eat burgers and sausages, which are unlikely ever to be health foods however they are made. But I think plant-based alternatives could get a lot of people a lot of the way towards potentially huge environmental benefits.
The argument over renewable energy has been won – it’s clean, it’s cheap and is a vital part of ending the climate crisis. But, by contrast, the debate over action to cut the massive impact of meat eating on the planet has only just begun.
If denials of livestock’s giant environmental hoofprint sounds like an echo of the denial of the damage caused by fossil fuels, that is because it is, according to a new analysis.
“The meat industry fosters uncertainty about scientific consensus and casts doubt over the reliability of both researchers and the evidence, a technique that has been employed by the tobacco, fossil fuel and alcohol industries,”
the UK researchers concluded, after conducting the first peer-reviewed and systematic analysis of how the meat industry frames the issue. They added that
“cherry-picking and misrepresentation of evidence was seen.”
Among the tactics found by the researchers were claiming that the science remains open to debate and branding advice that the overconsumption of meat is harmful as “extremist” or “alarmist”. Other industry lines were that livestock farming benefits the environment, for which there is very little evidence at any meaningful scale, and that red meat is more nutritious than the alternatives.
The researchers were blunt as to why such tactics are deployed: the
“potential threat to meat industry profits”.
“It is clear that the meat industry is a powerful voice”,
said Kathryn Clare of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and who led the analysis.
“The input of organisations representing the sector on issues relating to meat consumption should be of serious concern to those involved in food or sustainability policy”.
It is not just the industry that is in denial, but also the countries that host big livestock operations. New Zealand’s diplomats helped remove references to the need for plant-based diets from the influential summary of the major climate report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier in April. The term “plant-based” appears more than 50 times in the report itself.
The country’s own climate change minister, James Shaw, was not impressed:
“New Zealand should avoid adopting positions in these negotiations that could leave the impression we are working to protect our largest industries at the expense of the climate. We push back very strongly against petrostates’ efforts to protect their fossil fuel industries. We should strive to avoid any similar conflict of interest.”
It is clear that most people in developed nations eat more meat than is healthy for them or the planet. But it is also clear that action to cut meat-eating is a much harder challenge than switching the source of people’s electricity.
Food is personal, cultural and emotional. Governments are reluctant to be seen as telling people what should be on their plates, even though the sector is already heavily regulated for safety reasons. It is difficult for farmers too, working hard to produce our food and often for little reward. But unless meat consumption is reduced it will be vastly harder – perhaps impossible – to end the climate crisis.
A cut in meat-eating will happen, led by the young and as alternatives get tastier and more affordable. The question is whether it will happen in time, or whether the meat industry will follow in the footsteps of the fossil fuel industry and dangerously deny and delay, even as the impact of global heating grows ever more severe.
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