Huge re­duc­tion in meat-eat­ing ‘es­sen­tial’ to avoid cli­mate break­down

The Guardian Australia - - Environment - Damian Car­ring­ton En­vi­ron­ment ed­i­tor

Huge re­duc­tions in meat-eat­ing are es­sen­tial to avoid dan­ger­ous cli­mate change, ac­cord­ing to the most com­pre­hen­sive anal­y­sis yet of the food sys­tem’s im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment. In western coun­tries, beef con­sump­tion needs to fall by 90% and be re­placed by five times more beans and pulses.

The re­search also finds that enor­mous changes to farm­ing are needed to avoid de­stroy­ing the planet’s abil­ity to feed the 10 bil­lion peo­ple ex­pected to be on the planet in a few decades.

Food pro­duc­tion al­ready causes great dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment, via green­house gases from live­stock, de­for­esta­tion and wa­ter short­ages from farm­ing, and vast ocean dead zones from agri­cul­tural pol­lu­tion. But with­out ac­tion, its im­pact will get far worse as the world pop­u­la­tion rises by 2.3 bil­lion peo­ple by 2050 and global in­come triples, en­abling more peo­ple to eat meat-rich western di­ets.

This tra­jec­tory would smash crit­i­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal lim­its be­yond which hu­man­ity will strug­gle to live, the new re­search in­di­cates. “It is pretty shock­ing,” said Marco Spring­mann at the Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford, who led the re­search team. “We are re­ally risk­ing the sus­tain­abil­ity of the whole sys­tem. If we are in­ter­ested in peo­ple be­ing able to farm and eat, then we bet­ter not do that.”

“Feed­ing a world pop­u­la­tion of 10 bil­lion is pos­si­ble, but only if we change the way we eat and the way we pro­duce food,” said Prof Jo­han Rock­ström at the Pots­dam In­sti­tute for Cli­mate Im­pact Re­search in Ger­many, who was part of the re­search team. “Green­ing the food sec­tor or eat­ing up our planet: this is what is on the menu to­day.”

The new study fol­lows the pub­li­ca­tion of a land­mark UN re­port on Mon­day in which the world’s lead­ing sci­en­tists warned there are just a dozen years in which to keep global warm­ing un­der 1.5C, be­yond which even half a de­gree will sig­nif­i­cantly worsen the risks of drought, floods and ex­treme heat. The re­port said eat­ing less meat and dairy was im­por­tant but said cur­rent trends were in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

The new re­search, pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture, is the most thor­ough to date and com­bined data from ev­ery coun­try to as­sess the im­pact of food pro­duc­tion on the global en­vi­ron­ment. It then looked at what could be done to stop the loom­ing food cri­sis.

“There is no magic bul­let,” said Spring­mann. “But di­etary and tech­no­log­i­cal change [on farms] are the two es­sen­tial things, and hope­fully they can be com­ple­mented by re­duc­tion in food loss and waste.” About a third of food pro­duced to­day never reaches the ta­ble.

The re­searchers found a global shift to a “flex­i­tar­ian” diet was needed to keep cli­mate change even un­der 2C, let alone 1.5C. This flex­i­tar­ian diet means the aver­age world cit­i­zen needs to eat 75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the num­ber of eggs, while tripling con­sump­tion of beans and pulses and qua­dru­pling nuts and seeds. This would halve emis­sions from live­stock and bet­ter man­age­ment of ma­nure would en­able fur­ther cuts.

In rich na­tions, the di­etary changes re­quired are ever more stark. UK and US cit­i­zens need to cut beef by 90% and milk by 60% while in­creas­ing beans and pulses be­tween four and six times. How­ever, the mil­lions of peo­ple in poor na­tions who are un­der­nour­ished need to eat a lit­tle more meat and dairy.

Re­duc­ing meat con­sump­tion might be achieved by a mix of ed­u­ca­tion, taxes, sub­si­dies for plant-based foods and changes to school and work­place menus, the sci­en­tists said.

To halt de­for­esta­tion, wa­ter short­ages and pol­lu­tion from overuse of fer­tiliser, pro­found changes in farm­ing prac­tices are needed. These in­clude in­creas­ing crop yields in poorer na­tions, more uni­ver­sal wa­ter stor­age and far more care­ful use of fer­tilis­ers.

“I was sur­prised by the fact we need a com­bi­na­tion of very am­bi­tious op­tions,” Spring­mann said. “We re­ally need to push it to the edge of what is pos­si­ble.”

All the diet and farm­ing op­tions are al­ready be­ing im­ple­mented in some­where in the world, said Spring­mann. In the Nether­lands and Is­rael, fer­tilis­ers and wa­ter are be­ing bet­ter used, while big cuts in meat con­sump­tion are be­ing seen among young peo­ple in some cities.

But a global change is needed, he said: “I think we can do it, but we re­ally need much more proac­tive gov­ern­ments to pro­vide the right frame­work. Peo­ple can make a per­sonal dif­fer­ence by chang­ing their diet, but also by knock­ing on the doors of their politi­cians and say­ing we need bet­ter en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions – that is also very im­por­tant. Do not let politi­cians off the hook.”

Prof Tim Ben­ton at the Uni­ver­sity of Leeds, who was not part of the re­search team, said: “Ul­ti­mately, we live on a fi­nite planet, with fi­nite re­sources. It is a fic­tion to imag­ine there is a tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tion al­low­ing us to pro­duce as much food as we might ever want, al­low­ing us to overeat and throw food away.” He said the en­vi­ron­men­tal bur­den of the cur­rent food sys­tem “un­der­mines the abil­ity of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to live on a sta­ble and eco­log­i­cally rich planet”.

Prof Peter Smith at the Uni­ver­sity of Aberdeen, who was also not part of the re­search team, said: “We know food choices are very per­sonal, and that be­hav­iour change can be dif­fi­cult to en­cour­age, but the ev­i­dence is now un­equiv­o­cal – we need to change our di­ets if we are to have a sus­tain­able fu­ture. The fact that it will also make us health­ier makes it a no-brainer.”

Com­pos­ite: Getty Im­ages

Steak and a healthy vege­tar­ian meal with pulses.

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