New Study Says Climate Change Impacted by Meat Consumption
A new report published in the journal Nature Climate Change estimates that maintaining current food production and consumption levels could increase greenhouse gas emissions up to 80% above 2009 levels by 2050. As the world population rises toward 9.6 billion and the demand for meat increases as more developing countries adopt a Western diet, meat production could have global climate change consequences.
Global meat production hit an all-time high in 2013 at 308.5 million tons, and is expected to keep growing. According to the study, meat production is considered to contribute to climate change in a number of ways. First, livestock convert plant feed to meat at a relatively inefficient rate of less than 3 percent. This causes more and more arable land to be taken up with producing livestock feed instead of producing crops for direct human consumption. Second, the authors say that expanded food production “is a main driver of biodiversity loss,” and that by 2050, cropland will have expanded by 42%, fertilizer use will increase by 45% and the land mass of tropical forests will reduce by 10%. Finally, the meat industry relies heavily on cows, which further increase greenhouse gas emissions by producing methane through enteric fermentation (aka farts and burps).
To assess methods to combat this scenario, the researchers ran three scenarios, including: (1) a closing of “yield gaps,” where farmers achieve the highest crop yields possible; (2) halving food waste, which can be responsible for the loss of one third to one half of food produced every year; and (3) a global reduction in meat consumption. Projecting a reduced demand for meat turned out to have the largest potential effect on the environment, dropping greenhouse gas emissions 48% from their 2009 levels.
The researchers used guidelines for meat consumption created by American Heart Association for improved individual health outcomes. They recommend no more than two servings of red meat per week. Co-author Keith Richards says “this is not a radical vegetarian argument; it is an argument about eating meat in sensible amounts as a part of healthy balanced diets. Managing the demand better… would bring double benefits – maintaining healthy populations, and greatly reducing critical pressures on the environment.”
Lindsay Abrams, “Eat Less Meat, Save the Planet-and Yourself,” salon.com, Sep. 2, 2014
Bojana Bajzelj, Keith S. Richards, et al., “Importance of Food Demand Management for Climate Mitigation,” nature.com, Aug. 31, 2014
Jasper Hamill, “Meat-eaters Could Cause ‘Dangerous Climate Change,’ Scientists Warn,” forbes.com, Aug. 31, 2014
Fred Lewsey, “Changing Global Diets Is Vital to Reducing Climate Change,” cam.ac.uk, Aug. 31, 2014