Cut red meat consumption to feed the world

Reducing beef and lamb consumption vital if our burgeoning population is to eat

Row of young bulls feeding inside an open barn on an organic farm in The Netherlands near Utrecht

In a world that is set to grow ever more crowded, eating meat of all kinds is becoming increasingly unsustainable, but there is one culprit above all others that must be checked if climate change is to be brought under control: red meat.

With the planet expected to be home to almost 10 billion people by 2050, food production needs to ramp up by more than 50 per cent to feed everyone. But consumption of carbon-intensive beef and lamb must “fall drastically” to avoid adding to our environmental woes, according to a new report by the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The report spells out just how bad beef is for the environment. Taking the US as an example, it reveals that cows provide just 3 per cent of the calories in the national diet, but are responsible for half the country’s methane emissions, one of the most damaging greenhouse gases. Heavy beef and lamb-eating nations, such as the US, Brazil and Russia, should be cutting back their consumption by 40 per cent, equivalent to a serving and a half per week. A 2014 report concluded that beef is more harmful to the environment than driving.

The way we farm also has to change, according to the WRI, if the harmful greenhouse gases associated with agriculture are not to rise in tandem with increased production. Meat and dairy currently accounts for 83 per cent of farmland and is responsible for creating 60 per cent of agricultural emissions. To feed 10 billion at no extra environmental cost to the planet, those emissions need to be cut by two-thirds and no additional land used. Crops also need to be grown crops to feed humans, rather than livestock.

“If we tried to produce all the food needed in 2050 using today’s production systems, the world would have to convert most of its remaining forest, and agriculture alone would produce almost twice the emissions allowable from all human activities,” said Tim Searchinger of the WRI. “We think [a 40 per cent reduction] is a realistic goal. In the US and Europe, beef consumption has already reduced by one-third from the 1960s until today.”

Echoing the findings of an Oxford University report in June, which concluded that going vegan was the single most effective way to curb your environmental impact, Janet Ranganathan, the WRI’s vice-president for science and research, added: “We have to change how we produce and consume food, not just for environmental reasons, but because this is an existential issue for humans.”

The report was launched earlier this month at the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, intended to set out a path to meet commitments made in Paris in 2015. Its publication follows the recommendation by the UK’s climate watchdog, the Committee on Climate Change, that Britons should eat less meat if we want to meet our Paris goal of reducing carbon emissions by 160 millions tons by 2050.