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meat eating is a big climate issue – but isn’t getting the attention it deserves
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meat eating is a big climate issue – but isn’t getting the attention it deserves

Graph showing carbon footprint of various protein foods


UK prime minister Boris Johnson launched the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow with the mantra of “coal, cars, cash and trees”. The summit has so far largely ignored the elephant in this room. Or, rather, the cows.

Global food system currently responsible for about a quarterThe figure is expected to increase for all human-caused greenhouse gases. The increase in food system emissions alone threatens warming above 1.5℃. It is clear that we must stop using fossil fuels. But, it is equally important to reduce livestock consumption in high and middle-income countries to preserve the climate and restore natural beauty.

COP26 has seen governments pledge to halt deforestation cut methane emissions 30%By 2030. Both are driven by eating a lot of meat, but no reduction targets have been set. The pledge to protect nature signed by 45 governments didn’t mention meat consumption at all, while the US agriculture secretary claimed in an interview that Americans don’t need to produce or eat less meat at all.

Here are four reasons why COP26 should have less meat (and milk) on the plates.

1. Livestock have a high carbon footprint

It is inefficient to feed livestock plants when we could eat them directly. Even though cows and sheep can eat grass, unlike us, they still require lots of land for grazing. This could store more carbon dioxide as natural forests or grasslands, or be used to grow crops for human consumption. These animals also produce significant amounts of methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gases.

The carbon footprint of beef, lamb, and poultry is three times greater than that of pork, poultry, or farmed fish per 100g protein. 24 times higherMore pulses than beans and lentils. Livestock produces just 18% of global calories and 37% of protein, but is responsible for more than half of food’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Small amounts of meat, dairy and other animal products can be a part of sustainable food systems. However, some plants have very high environmental impacts and some nuts are used. lots of water. However, meat with a lower carbon footprint still emits more than high-protein plant-based foods that are higher in emissions.

Graph showing carbon footprint of various protein foods

Beef and Lamb are the most high-carbon-intensive protein sources. If the nut trees are planted on former croplands, some nuts can even be carbon-negative.
Data: Poore and Nemecek, Science; Chart: Our World in Data. CC BY-SA

2. Reducing livestock production would help protect the environment

Farmland can be used for a variety of purposes. 50% of Earth’s habitable land, and the vast majority of that farmland is used for livestock and their feed. Natural habitat loss is the largest threat to wildlife, and farming is the main cause. Beef productionThe main driver of tropical forest destruction is fire.

In order to eat more meat, more natural habitat must be cleared. key drivers of global deforestation. In contrast, reducing meat consumption could free up land that could be restored for wildlife and people, and carbon storage.

Meat on a shelf in a fridge

Producing meat requires land, animal feed and water.
Poberezhna / shutterstock

3. Since the 1960s, meat production has quadrupled

The world’s meat production has quadrupled since 1961. As a result, the meat supply per person has nearly doubled (from 23kg up to 62kg). more than 43kg) and the human population has more than doubled (from 3 billion to 7 billion).

As a result, the number and size of animals that are killed each year has risen dramatically. Since 1960, the number of chickens slaughtered each year has increased tenfold (from 6.6 billion a 68.8billion), while the number of pigs has almost quadrupled (0.4billion to 1.5billion) and that of cows has increased from 0.2billion to 0.3billion.

The distribution of meat consumption is also uneven. Just as richer nations tend to have higher greenhouse gas emission, they also tend eat more meat. For example, the average US citizen has access to approximately 1.25 lbs of food. 124kg of meat a year, whereas in China, Nigeria and India it’s 61kg, 7kg and 4kg respectively.

Map of meat supply by country.

A map of global meat supply is similar to a map showing average incomes or carbon footprints.
FAO / Our World in Data. CC BY-SA

4. More sustainable means healthier

Healthy and sustainable eating habits broadly overlap: A diet that is low in red meat and processed meat and high on vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, and other healthy foods. However, there are important exceptions. While oily fish is good for your health, the fuel used to propel fishing boats generally emits more greenhouse gases than plant-based protein. Many fish populations are also overfished. Sugar, on the other hand, has a relatively low environmental impact but doesn’t have any nutritional value besides calories.

The Planetary Health Diet – a healthy diet designed to minimise environmental damage – recommends on average three small portions of meatTwo small portions of fish and seven glasses each of milk per week. However, many of the poorest people in low-income countries eat less meat and fish than this or don’t have access to healthy alternative foods. They could see a rise in animal products, not decreases. This makes it even more important that people who eat a lot of meat, fish, or dairy cut back.

There are many different policiesThese could make sustainable and healthy diets more affordable. These include removing subsidies to livestock farming, helping livestock producers to transition to other farming systems, making menus more plant-based and encouraging behaviour change through prominent positioning and lower prices for healthy and sustainable foods. Education and public information – while important – won’t be enough by themselves. The planet is dependent on our ability to step up.

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