We Need to Talk About Meat Consumption and Climate Change

Government indifference is matched by widespread public ignorance about the climate impact of high levels of meat-eating

As negotiators in the Peruvian capital of Lima engage in the latest round of multinational talks aimed at finding ways of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, one issue will be conspicuous in its absence — animal farming.

The rearing of livestock and meat consumption accounts for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – not to mention its relatively inefficient use of water, land and crops – yet few governments are willing to discuss options for reducing its impact.

Cows in an industrial feedlotPhoto by David OliverMeat and dairy production accounts for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, yet most of us underestimate its carbon footprint.

As well as carbon emissions from deforestation (for pasture or crops to feed animals), the livestock sector is also the largest source of methane (from cattle) and nitrous oxide emissions (from fertiliser and manure), two particularly potent greenhouse gases. There are already more than 22 billion chickens in the world — more than three per person — with global consumption of meat predicted to rise 76 percent by 2050, against a 2005-7 baseline. By that date we will be growing more crops to feed directly to animals than ourselves.

So why the lack of political action? Government’s around the world have initiated policies to reduce energy use in homes, industry, and cars, but have been reluctant to legislate against meat. The only flicker of ambition, if you could call it that, has been in Europe where The Netherlands and Sweden included climate change considerations in their dietary recommendations to citizens. The UK has also urged consumers to “moderate” their meat consumption and switch to a diet of more peas, beans, nuts, and other sources of protein with “relatively lower environmental cost.”

This government indifference is matched by widespread public ignorance about the impact of high levels of meat-eating on climate change, according to a recently published survey of consumers in 12 countries, including Brazil, China, India, the United Kingdom and United States, commissioned by the UK-based think tank Chatham House.

Twice as many respondents identified direct transport emissions as a major contributor to climate change as identified meat and dairy production, despite them having almost equal contributions. And as many as one-quarter of respondents stated that meat and dairy production contributes little or nothing to climate change. Climate change was generally listed as secondary by respondents to immediate considerations of taste, price, health, food safety and animal welfare in shaping food choices.

The survey also found just a small percentage (9 percent) of people across all of the 12 countries willing to reduce their own meat consumption to help tackle climate change. Although there was a greater willingness to change diets in China (19 percent), India (14 percent) and Brazil (12 percent) and much lower willingness from those respondents in Japan (2 percent), the UK (4 percent), US (4 percent) and Russia (5 percent).

“The received wisdom among governments and policy makers appears to be that trying to change diets is at best too complex a challenge, and at worst risks backlash for intruding on people’s lifestyle choices,” says Rob Bailey, lead author and research director at Chatham House. “This results in a lack of awareness about the issue among [the] public, and probably contributes to a degree of complacency: people might reasonably assume that if meat and dairy consumption really was a problem for the climate, governments and environmental groups would be doing more about it,” he adds.

Some experts have pushed for a sustainable intensification of livestock farming to help curtail emissions growth, but climate scientists say focusing on supply-side emissions alone is not enough. In a report on limiting the impact of livestock on climate change, published last year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found the scale of growth in meat consumption was likely to outweigh any productivity gains that could be achieved.

“Without dietary change the 2°C target is off the table because, on current predictions, agriculture will be consuming too much of the carbon budget by 2050,” says Bailey. As a starting point, the Chatham House report recommends policymakers work fast to close the awareness gap on the relationship between meat/dairy and climate change, with survey results showing a greater willingness to act amongst those who understood the connection.

With a growing public debate around the health impacts of a high meat diet, the report also recommended policy strategies that emphasised the co-benefits for health. Recent scientific studies have linked consumption of high amounts of red and particularly processed meats to stomach cancer and diabetes. Some countries, such as the UK, are already issuing guidelines on not eating more than 70 grams of red and processed meat a day.

A number of climate scientists have called for fiscal measures in high meat consuming countries. A European study, published in 2013, estimated that a tax on animal products, weighted by greenhouse gas emission intensity, could reduce beef consumption by 15 percent. While another study in Sweden estimated that the introduction of taxes on meat products could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 27 percent.

To be successful, argues sustainability analyst Alejandro Litovsky, founder of the Earth Security Group, both consumers and the meat industry need an alternative scenario for protein consumption, industry and jobs, which renders meat obsolete.

“A range of technological innovations happening within biotechnology, for example, growing meat tissue for human consumption offer a way forward. They address issues of climate change/methane emissions, water intensity, animal welfare and can allow countries to develop technologically and promote R&D. Now an interesting challenge will be how governments, companies and the advertising industry collaborate to change the mindset of consumers to demand these new product,” he says.

As well as lab-grown meat, a number of US-based companies are also pursing the development of low-cost plant-based alternatives that have the look, taste and feel of meat. However, critics argue that both alternatives will struggle to convince consumers they are not just inferior versions of meat.

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