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Day 3: Food: the carbon impact of meat (– or make a turkey happy this COPmas)

Most of us are aware of everyday actions we can do to reduce our carbon footprint: turning off lights when not needed; using our cars less for short journeys; turning the thermostat down; having short showers and insulating our homes etc. But much less is understood about the impact our diets could be having on the climate, and the fact that our meat eating habits could constitute a large chunk of our personal annual carbon footprint.  The elephant in this particular room is the cow, the pig and the turkey!

If we take beef as an example, the consumption of just 1kg of beef, a roast dinner for three people typically, is equivalent to driving our cars a distance of about 160km (~100 miles). Meat in general, and red meat in particular, has a very high carbon and water footprint in terms of its lifecycle from farm to plate, and for our health, the well-being of farm animals and the health and well-being of our planet, we really need to reduce our consumption of it.

What eco actions can we take?

There are lots of easy things that we can do to reduce the carbon burden of our diets by being more mindful of our meat choices, and the beauty of taking action on our diets is it also usually has beneficial effects on our health too:

Citizens: individually, we can all make an effort to reduce our intake of meat and dairy products (unless you are veggie or vegan already of course – in which case award yourself a gold star). Why not give our 3 COPmas turkeys something to really dance about by opting for a meat free Christmas dinner this year? Signing up to Meat Free Mondays is a great start in the journey to reduce meat consumption for the long term. Also thinking about reducing red meat generally and replacing with (free range or organic) chicken and other ethically reared poultry will help reduce your carbon footprint. If you want to go further, why not try vegetarianism, or even go vegan, for a month and see how it suits you. Typically a vegetable based diet tends to be healthier than one based on a large amount of meat.

Civil Society: everyone can rise to the challenge and help spread the word about the impact of meat consumption on the planet. If your community group or club is organising a Christmas get together, why not break with tradition and try a vegetarian Christmas meal instead – if people question it, that’s a great conversation opener for discussing the issues around excess meat consumption and climate change especially while COP21 negotiations are in full swing.

Corporates: as with communities, when organising your Christmas work ‘do, why not make it an alternative affair with at least a couple of tasty alternatives to the traditional turkey dinner, lobby to have any event your company organises to go completely vegetarian for canapes and other snacks, and suggest your canteen, if you have one, tries out Meat Free Mondays for a trial period to promote a more planet, and animal, friendly alternative. 

Blog post: The elephant in the room is a cow

According to a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), our diets and, specifically, the meat we consume, are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane & nitrous oxide, than all transportation modes combined. Intensive, industrial scale meat farming and government subsidies has turned meat from what used to be an occasional treat, to an affordable, everyday, every meal product. Demand for meat has increased globally as countries develop and population grows with the total amount of meat produced climbing from 70 million tonnes in 1961 to 160 million tonnes in 1987 to 304 million tonnes in 2012 (FAO 2012a) an increase of 300 per cent in 50 years.

Embedded GHG emissions Estimates of the total emissions from all forms of agriculture vary between 10-35 per cent of all global GHG emissions. A FAO report (2006) found that production of meat contributed between 14 and 22 percent of the 36 billion tons of CO2eq-equivalent greenhouse gases the world produces every year. Large differences in estimates are mainly based on the exclusion or inclusion of emissions due to deforestation and land use changes to provide more land for cattle grazing. In contrast to general trends of GHG emissions, carbon dioxide (CO2) is only a small component of emissions in animal agriculture. The largest share of GHG emissions for meat production are from methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), both of these gases being part of the basket of the six most important GHGs that are being discussed at COP21.

Deforestation and land use change Around 80% of global deforestation occurs as a direct result of agricultural practices according to UNEP. This is most definitely the case in the Amazon rainforest. Over the past 40 years, about a fifth of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has been lost (Reuters 2008) and some of the main reasons for the deforestation is the conversion of forest for cattle ranching and agricultural crops, industrial activities and logging for timber. Deforestation releases carbon into the atmosphere which would otherwise have been trapped in the trees and soil, and it also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide rainforests can absorb.

Embedded water Livestock uses about one third of our total fresh water supply globally. The planet’s total number of cows combined produce around 130 times more waste than the entire human race, and this animal waste is now one of the biggest polluters of fresh water resources. There are approximately 1.5 billion cows, which require a great deal of food therefore, about 98% of the water footprint of animal products relates to water use for feed

Our dietary habits greatly influence the overall water footprint too. In industrialized countries, the average calorie consumption is about 3,400 kcal a day and roughly 30% of that comes from animal products. Under these circumstances, producing a meat based diet of food for 1 day uses approximately 3,600 litres of water, where as a vegetarian diet reduces the food-related water footprint to 2,300 litres per day, a reduction of 36%.

Solutions and conclusions Can we switch to more climate friendly meat? Well there is a hierarchy of carbon intensity of meat, with red meat being the most intensive, and poultry less so, and fish and shellfish less again. However it is a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other, for eg pigs and poultry do produce significantly less methane than cows, however, they are more dependent on grain and soy- which also have their own carbon impact. Grass-fed, free range meat and resulting dairy products may be more environmentally friendly than factory-farmed or grain-fed options, but they require a lot more land, which is an issue in many parts of the world.

A simple, healthy, planet friendlier alternative to swapping meat varieties, is if everyone made small changes in their diets, considered meat as more of an occasional treat and ate more vegetable and pulse based meals. Healthier for us humans, kinder to animals and better for the planet too – what’s not to like?

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