Jess Fanzo and Mario Herrero of British newspaper The Guardian noted that climate crisis was on the UN general assembly’s agenda, with discussions focused on changing the energy and transport industries to mitigate the potential crisis. However, the impact of food systems on greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental degradation was not high on the agenda. High-level reports were published to argue that the food system needs to be radically changed in order for the world to create a profound impact on the climate crisis.
Fanzo and Herrero stated that food systems contribute 21% to 37% of global greenhouse gases and are also the catalysts to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and declining water tables. But the biggest problem of all is livestock as they consume a third of global cropland and contribute 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the EU is urged to impose meat tax in an attempt to address the climate crisis. Let’s tackle how consuming less meat helps in curbing the said issue.
Eat Less Meat and Save the Environment
Marco Springmann and colleagues published their study titled “Options for Keeping the Food System Within Environmental Limits” in the journal portal Nature, as cited by Damian Carrington of The Guardian. As the most comprehensive analysis of the impact of food systems on the environment, the study argued that huge reductions in meat-eating are critical in avoiding dangerous change.
Beef consumption needs to fall by 90% in western countries like the US and UK and milk by 60% while replacing these foods with beans and pulses between four and six times. However, people who are undernourished in poor nations need to consume a little more meat and dairy.
Due to expected changes in population and income levels, the effects of the food system to the environment could skyrocket by 50% to 90% between 2010 and 2050 in the absence of changes in technology and mitigation measures. Such effects can escalate levels that transcend planetary boundaries.
Food production damages the environment through greenhouse gases from livestock, deforestation, and water shortages from farming and vast ocean dead zones. Expounding on the production of animal products, livestock was found to generate 72% to 78% of total agricultural emissions due to low feed-conversion efficiencies, enteric fermentation in ruminants, and manure-related emissions. The feed-related impacts of animal products also lead to bluewater use at around 10%, including pressures on cropland, nitrogen, and phosphorus application (20% to 25%).
Its impacts will escalate as the global population swells from 6.9 billion in 2010 to 8.5 billion to 10 billion people by 2050 with a range of 23% to 45%. Income will also triple to $180 to $290 trillion in 2050, up from $68 trillion in 2010. Prof. Johan Rockström at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who was part of the research team, said, “Feeding a world population of 10 billion is possible, but only if we change the way we eat and the way we produce food.”
Alarmingly, the environmental impacts of the food system will go beyond the planetary boundaries for food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 110%. It will also exceed by 70% for cropland use, 50% for bluewater use, 125% for nitrogen application, and 75% for phosphorus application.
Given these alarming statistics, Springmann and colleagues found that the world needs to shift to a “flexitarian” diet to keep climate change even below 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5 degrees C. The flexitarian diet will require citizens to consume 75% less beef, 90% less pork, and half the number of eggs while consuming beans and pulses by three times and nuts and seeds by four times.
Springmann explained, “I think we can do it, but we really need much more proactive governments to provide the right framework.”
Saving the Environment One Solution at A Time
A report published by environmental research group CE Delft found that a “sustainability charge” on meat to cover its environmental impact can raise billions to help farmers and consumers produce and eat better food, said Carrington. Over the next 10 years, the levy that will increase the price of a steak by about 25% would be phased in.
Produced for the Tapp Coalition of health, environment, and animal welfare organizations, the report focused on EU countries, saying that “fair pricing” for meat should be included in the upcoming European “green new deal” and “so-called farm-to-fork strategy.” CE Delft analyzed the costs of greenhouse gas emissions, other air and water pollution, and wildlife losses associated with livestock production.
The research group estimated that covering these costs will raise beef prices by €0.47 (US$0.44) per 100 grams. Hence, a 25% increase in the cost of a 227-gram supermarket steak in the UK is expected. Meanwhile, the levy on pork and chicken would be lower due to their smaller impact on the environment, amounting to €0.36 (US$0.40)/100 grams and €0.17 (US$0.19)/100 grams respectively. The report said that these can minimize beef consumption in the EU by 67%, pork by 57%, and chicken by 30% by 2030.
Such will save €32 billion (US$35.22 billion) each year for EU member states and slash emissions by 120 million tons annually. The Tapp Coalition added that about half of this should be dedicated to farmers to help them shift their production away from meat as it can raise individual farm incomes by thousands of euros a year.
The rest should be allotted to reducing the cost of fruits and vegetables, support poorer families, and aid developing countries in dealing with the climate crisis. Tapp Coalition Director Jeroom Remmers explained, “Europeans eat roughly 50% more meat than is recommended in dietary health guidelines. [So] we could also save billions of euros every year in lower healthcare costs.”
A carbon tax on high-impact food is also supported by a report published by social purpose company Behavioral Insights Team (Bit). Partly owned by the UK government, Bit suggested making plant-based food “the default choice at catered events or on flights.” In November, three European health associations wrote to Frans Timmermans, the senior European commissioner leading the green new deal initiative, to say that numerous studies in recent years have found that shifting to a healthy, more plant-rich diets can provide health, environmental, and economic benefits.
The report also recommended governments to lead by example by removing or minimizing unsustainable food products from public canteens in hospitals, schools, and government offices. It even suggested schools and colleges teach practical cooking skills. Head of energy and sustainability at Bit Toby Park said, “Governments, industry, and consumers around the world are more aware than ever of the need to live within our planet’s means.”
Meat consumption needs to be reduced to curb the impacts of the climate crisis. The reports and studies are a call to action for people to consume smartly by taking in more plant-based food than meat. It will take time for change to come, but the solutions provided to the EU are a great start.