CarbonBrief discusses climate change in relation to meat and dairy consumption

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There are many factors to consider when reducing dairy and meat consumption. CarbonBrief has published a series explaining why climate change is a major one.

The global food system has tremendous environmental consequences. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), just meat and dairy account for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. On top of that, animal agriculture counts on land use, soil erosion, air pollution, and water use. And everything turns worse when we add the ‘intensive’ adjective. 

CarbonBrief brought an exceptional panel to discuss the topic: ‘Do we need to stop eating meat and dairy to tackle climate change?’ The subject is complex, and more so if we consider it at a global level. Nonetheless, the general answer to the question was yes, or at least to dramatically reduce the consumption of meat and dairy.

Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen, and a convening author on IPCC reports, specialises in the GHG emissions from livestock. Dr Helen Harwatt, a food and climate policy fellow from Harvard Law School, highlighted the amount of carbon that land previously used for farming could potentially store. 

In addition, Dr Modi Mwatsama, who is the science lead for food systems, nutrition and health at Wellcome Trust, and part of the recent Citizens’ Assembly, talked about the animal product overconsumption. And Dr Tara Garnett, a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, stressed that many social, political and economic factors have an effect on diets.

A graph, based in a broadly cited study, broke down the carbon footprint of each food groups. Beef and lamb product exceed by far any other plant-based product.

food carbon emissions
Photo: CarbonBrief

Two exceptions could be coffee and chocolate; the former due to the fertilisers used in its production, and the latter because of the amount of land and water needed. However, each one is served in small portions regularly. Overall, meat and other animal products have between 10 and 50 times bigger an impact on climate change than plant-based foods, according to the study. 

The debate covered a variety of diets: vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, organic, etc. Between them, the one with the smallest impact is the vegan diet. However, it doesn’t differ too much from others, such as vegetarian or flexitarian; this is when you dramatically reduce animal product consumption, although not completely.

“Everyone can make a contribution, not just people who choose to become vegetarian or vegan.” said Professor Smith. “People who continue to eat meat can make a significant contribution just by cutting out meat for a few meals a week and consuming smaller portions of meat.” 

In fact, the Climate Assembly’s report advises reducing meat consumption by 20% to 40%, although it stressed that should be voluntary. Dr Mwatsama, who was part of the assembly, proposed some ideas to help people make the shift: “One example is making plant-based meal alternatives or vegetarian options more available.

“A recent survey published the number of vegetarian options has increased to around 24%. And yet, the vast majority of ready meals in supermarkets still contain some form of an animal product, either meat or dairy, like cheese.”

She added that improving cooking skills is beneficial: “I think pulses are a very good source of protein and fibre, but often, people may not necessarily know how to cook it. For instance, the dry variety needs to be soaked for 12 hours before cooking.”

Finally, she mentioned that the government could use pricing to encourage people to eat less meat and dairy. In most parts of the world, she said, governments subsidies mostly address the livestock: “There is very little investment in vegetables or plant-based foods like pulses.” 

On that point, Dr Harwatt recalled how the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) also recommends reducing meat consumption. “Recently, CCC recommended to the UK government to have around a 20% reduction to meet climate goals. They [the Government] did say this was expected to happen anyway just by consumer trends in the way they were looking.’

It’s a complex issue, especially when change is needed on a global scale. A lot of proposals have been launched, including taxes, social campaigns, and offering a broader range of plant-based options. But arguably, the hardest barrier is to convince people. Dr Garnett said that “we need to understand why we eat what we eat at the moment”, an issue that is “fantastically complex and multifaceted”. 

There are many aspects to consider, beginning with our family and social habits — kids eat what the family serves. It’s also worth mentioning affordability and availability, which is incredibly important. And in a broaden context, there are legal frameworks, trade arrangements and even marketing techniques. All of this, for now, aims for us to eat focusing on economic benefits and not on health.

Juanele Villanueva
Juanele Villanueva
Juanele Villanueva is a freelance journalist passionated with Environment Affairs. He is originally from Spain and started to be interested in the Environment and sustainability when he was in his masters at the University of Salford. His goal is to share stories which change the general belief that being eco-friendly is just for wealthy people. Moreover, the vegan diet is the easiest step that everyone can do to reduce its environmental footprint. He is also interested in conservationism, recycling, renewable energies and environmental policies