The sums don't add up on meat eating. Reduce consumption now, warn experts

Selection of fruit and vegetables

Faced with the prospect of a world driven to climate catastrophe by infeasible attempts to keep up with the demand for meat, a new study advises we look closer at the impact of the foods we eat.

Researchers at Cambridge and Aberdeen universities warn that the food industry risks triggering unstoppable climate change unless the planet fundamentally rethinks its relationship with meat.

With a population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, raising enough livestock to keep pace with the rapid take-up of meat-heavy Western diets would send harmful greenhouse gas emissions rocketing 80 per cent in the next 35 years, according to the study, Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation.

If food production continues with business as usual, by 2050 fertiliser use will have jumped by 45 per cent and crop land expanded by 42 per cent on 2009 levels – putting paid to 10 per cent of the world’s remaining rainforests.

“Agricultural practices are not necessarily at fault here, but our choice of food is,” said lead researcher Bojana Bajzelj of the University of Cambridge. “There are basic laws of biophysics that we cannot evade.”

The only way for the world to maintain its high-meat diet and keep climate change within “safe” limits would be for the energy and industry sectors to “completely decarbonise”, according to one of the paper’s co-authors, Professor Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen.

“That is practically impossible – so, as well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to rethink what we eat.”

Co-author Professor Keith Richards observed that managing the demand for meat would be one way to achieve this: “For example by focusing on health education, [which] would bring double benefits – maintaining healthy populations and greatly reducing critical pressures on the environment.”

The authors stop short of advising consumers to take the simple, effective step of going meat free for one or more days a week, however, or cut meat out of their diets entirely.

Initiatives such as Meat Free Monday are already playing a key role in educating consumers about the harmful effects of meat production on people and planet. The growing popularity of the campaign is also highlighting how individual choices can have a global impact.

The Cambridge/Aberdeen paper suggests that greenhouse gas levels from agriculture could be halved from 2009 levels if people adopted healthier diets – i.e. ate less meat – as well as if farmers in developing countries were helped to achieve the best yields from their land and if global food waste were drastically reduced.

Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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