Eat Less Meat to Beat the Heat

Photo: Victoria Shes/Unsplash

Photo: Victoria Shes/Unsplash

In a major step forward in the fight to contain the climate crisis, the UN IPCC’s latest report on climate change and land use states we must transform the world’s food system, change what we eat and how we manage land, to slow down global heating. 

The report says the current focus on replacing fossil fuels in electricity and transportation is not enough to meet the Paris climate targets. We need to eat less meat and it recommends a major shift to plant based foods. In so doing, the IPCC analysis calls out the largely unappreciated silent partner in the climate crisis, our growing global appetite for meat produced by factory farms that is helping destroy the planet. 

The science underpinning the recommendations is compelling. Animal agriculture is the second largest GHG emitter at 14.5% of global emissions, more than all transportation globally, according to the UN FAO. In addition, agriculture, forestry and land use changes combined contribute 23% of all GHG emissions.  The report says cattle and rice produce half of all methane emissions, one of the most potent greenhouse gasses. The industrialized production of meat is highly resource intensive, highly inefficient at converting protein, a significant source of pollution, and a huge emitter of GHGs. 

So, while the downsides of fossils fuels and the benefits of solar panels and electric cars, dominate public debate and consciousness on the climate crisis, this new report shines a spotlight directly on the benefits that will accrue from replacing meat with plant-based foods. 

Regular readers of “Planet Friendly News” will know this latest report echoes themes we’ve been writing about for months.  We’ve always believed that the elephant in the room was a cow, a sacred one at that. And not just a cow but other ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats that produce copious amounts of methane, just one of the environmentally destructive aspects of intensive animal agriculture.  

Numerous, highly credible research reports have already been calling for us to eat less meat to help fight global warming.  One of the most influential was published in the journal “Science” in May 2018 by Joseph Poore of Oxford University and Thomas Nemecek from Swiss research group, Agroscope. It said, avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce our impact on the planet.   

Photo: Ronaldo De Oliveira/Unsplash

Photo: Ronaldo De Oliveira/Unsplash

But this is the first time the UN IPCC has put such emphasis on the detrimental effects of animal agriculture and the climate healing aspects of changing what we eat. As an example, the report says cutting meat and dairy consumption in wealthier nations is a major opportunity due to the heavy environmental impact of intensively raised cattle. And that this switch will deliver important health benefits.  

The report recommends we transform the food production system and manage land more sustainably to reduce emissions, cut meat consumption to reduce methane production, transition to plant based diets and limit food waste. And it pulls back the veil on the phrase “land use changes” which has been used in many reports  and disguises such issues as deforestation and the destruction of wildlife and biodiversity tied to the expansion of intensive livestock farming designed to feed our growing appetite for meat. 

There are lots of ways to fight the climate crisis and we need to employ all of them if we are to succeed.  But some are more effective and easier to achieve than others. So, in a situation where time is of the essence, let’s prioritize what we can do. The fact is, animal agriculture is a big emitter and changing the food industry and what we eat is one of the biggest levers we have to fight the climate crisis. However, re-engineering our food systems will take time but we, as individuals, can act right away. We don’t have to wait for governments, industry or institutions. 

The UN report is a major step forward in confronting the climate crisis and could be an inflection point in the battle to control global heating. It could be another tipping point that galvanizes people to act, motivated by a clear message and opportunities for change that arrive on our plates three times a day. Unless we turn this tide, our appetites will continue to fuel global heating that will cook not just those beef burgers, but the planet itself and our chances for survival.

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