Growing Greenhouse Gas Emissions due to Meat Production has been compiled by the Global Environmental Alert Service of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which scans scientific literature and data sources to produce briefings for policymakers.
Its authors state the case explicitly – “Agriculture, through meat production, is one of the main contributors to greenhouse gases and thus has a potential impact on climate change” – and anticipate that it will take “a long campaign… and incentives to meat producers and consumers” to change what and how we eat.
But the facts and figures highlight the scale of the problem.
The world average for meat consumption is currently 115g per day (42kg per year), with Americans consuming by far the most: 322g per day (120kg a year). The average European eats slightly more than 200g per day (76kg per year).
Asia as a whole consumes a quarter of the meat consumed by the US – the average Chinese consumes 160g per day, the average Indian only 12g – but China is by far the fastest-growing market. Total meat consumption in Asia has increased 30-fold since 1961 and by 165 per cent since 1990.
Cattle are the biggest source of methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases, being bigger than other farm animal. There were 1.43 billion head of cattle in 2010, fully a third in Asia, a quarter in South America and a fifth in Africa. Unsurprisingly Asia is the main source of the world’s methane – almost 34 per cent. India, too, has high levels, despite eating very little beef.
The alert makes it clear that people and planet can only benefit from a reduction in meat consumption: “It seems probable that many benefits would accrue from lower consumption rates in many developed and some developing countries.
“Reduced meat production would ease both pressures on the remaining natural environment (i.e. less new land clearance for livestock)” and on atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).
The UNEP alert concludes: “‘Healthy eating is not just important for the individual but for the planet as a whole.”