Saving Our Planet By Going Vegan
By Ian Lie Kon Pauw, Iris Vernooij, and Anne Middeldorp
This blogpost will address the consequences of our eating habits on climate change. Food production causes huge amounts of greenhouse-gas emissions. Most of these emissions are the result of the production of meat. Therefore, this blogpost is in particular about the extent to which greenhouse-gases are produced for meat production and how exactly they are being produced.
We will first show why meat production has such a huge impact on climate change, and why it should be addressed. In addition, we will talk about the transnational aspect of this problem and the legislations that relate to the production of meat and climate change. Finally, we will think of some possible solutions for the problem with the help of an interview with a plant-based meat developer.
What is exactly the problem of meat production to climate change?
All over the world, people eat more and more meat. The simple reason behind this trend, is the fact that people have become richer over time. People in developing countries seem to have more money which allows them to buy more quality food, like meat. Especially the South-East Asian population shows a trend towards the increasing consumption of meat.
Some interesting statistics
- The average amount of meat people eat a year is 31 kg.
- Americans are the biggest meat consumers, with an average of 124 kg a year. In contrast, people in Bangladesh eat on average 3 kg per person per year, which makes them the smallest meat consumers.
- The average meat consumption per person is actually decreasing. However, there’s an increasing trend in the total amount of meat consumption. This is caused by the growing population.
The development of a worldwide increase of meat consumption however, has some serious downsides to climate change. The production of meat is responsible for about 18% of the total worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions. These are mostly produced by decomposing organic materials without having access to much oxygen. Think about the digestion of livestock, or the storage of manures. Manures are often stored in so called ‘liquid systems’. You can imagine the lack of oxygen here causes even higher emissions. However, before getting too detailed, the specific processes that lay down to the production of these emissions will be explained further in this blogpost.
It’s important to realize not all sorts of meat have equal effects on climate change. As shown in the statistics below, beef is the most harmful sort of meat concerning greenhouse-gas emissions. This is caused by the efficiency in which animals are able to digest their food. The more livestock eats, the more they have to digest, so the higher the emissions. Because of this, it’s important to take into account to what extent animals digest their food efficiently.
Chickens and pigs, for example, digest more efficiently than sheep and cows. As a result, beef has the highest emissions of all foods.
Anthropogenic GHG emissions
When it comes to the warming of the earth, most scientists seem to agree that the earth is indeed warming and that this is due to human intervention in at least the past few decades. Prior to this, natural processes such as solar variability, volcanoes, and internal climate variability could also have played a substantial role. When scientists talk about emissions they mainly talk about the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHG), which largely consists of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3) and water vapor (H₂O). The emission then caused by humans is referred to as anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
The anthropogenic emissions produce CO2 mainly from the combustion of carbon-based fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), deforestation, soil erosion and agriculture. Humans also seem to produce methane through the breeding of livestock. These human caused GHG emissions are then driven by the population size, economic activity, lifestyle, energy use, land use patterns, technology and climate policy.
Livestock is only one of the many other ways of anthropogenic GHG emissions, yet it has some special traits to it and hasn’t got as much attention as the emissions caused by the burning of fossil-fuels thus far. The negative effects associated with livestock are the high emissions of greenhouse gasses, but there are other negative side effects. These include the Earth’s freshwater supply, depletion of land, creation of waste and the extinction of wildlife. While these negative side effects mainly have to do with environmental issues, the depletion of land in the form of deforestation has a strong link with climate change. Deforestation will thereby be explained later in more detail.
Let’s start with the carbon footprint of livestock. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, livestock is responsible for about 18% of the world’s GHG emissions, which is more than the 13% of transportation. But others such as Goodland and Anhang, report that GHG emissions due to livestock are much higher than the UN estimated with an amount of 51% of the world’s total amount of GHG emissions and 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This estimation is also used in the documentary called ‘Cowspiracy’, in which the effects of livestock on climate change are addressed. Thus there seems to be some discrepancies about the amount of total emission that is caused by livestock. They claim that the UN has underestimated the amount of GHG emissions mainly in the areas of land use, methane and respiration. Livestock’s exhalation, or farts, produce methane, which attributes up to 37% of the world’s methane emissions and 14% of the world’s GHG emissions per year. On top of this, NASA scientists believe that methane also has a more devastating effect compared to CO2; 33 times more compared to the previous factor of 25. The FAO however, are neglecting the exhalation of livestock as a contributor to climate change. They argue that breathing is actually part of the natural carbon cycle, which means that CO2 exhaled by organisms is recycled by plants and thus does not contribute to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Here, the critics may score a point as the earth’s photosynthetic capacity, or it’s natural carbon cycle, is based on the natural amount of emissions caused by life on earth. But because livestock implies that humans artificially increase the farm animal population, the emission of these animals can be considered no less unnatural as the emissions of, for example, cars and industrial sites. The world’s farm animal population is currently estimated by the FAO at 21.7 billion, while Goodland and Anhang estimate it at 50 billion.
A worrying negative side effect of livestock is the destruction of rain forests and the depletion of the world’s soil. This in its turn would worsen the effect of GHG emissions on the increase of temperatures on earth. The deprivation of land by livestock is not only caused by the space it takes to grow the animals, but mostly by the amount of land it requires to grow food to feed them. This is because cattle eat very water intensive grains, like corn and soybeans in order to grow. About 1/3th of the earth’s soil is occupied by livestock or the production of their feed. In the Amazon, animal agriculture is responsible for almost 91% of its destruction. 1–2 acres of forest are cleared every second for the production of soybeans for livestock. In other words: the forest is turned into meat. This is troublesome for the earth’s climate as trees have a cooling effect on the climate. This cooling effect is caused as trees have the ability to absorb CO2 and turn it into oxygen, which is referred to a process called photosynthesis. It is thought that forests currently soak up more than a quarter of all CO2 that humans emit per year.
Could it also be that we are doing nothing wrong but that we are simply overpopulated? Instead of all this talk about agriculture, people might also argue that it’s actually human over population that’s the problem. With world human population multiplying by about 4 times in the last century to a current population of roughly 7 billion people, the demand for meat is also increasing quite rapidly. Considering that global meat production almost doubled in the period of 1980–2004 according to the FAO, it is only logical to suggest that this demand will continue to grow as human population continues to grow. It’s therefore a rather serious question if our meat consumption is sustainable in the future. As the demand for meat grows, farmers will have to find more efficient ways to grow animals and to grow them faster. This is a process which we are already witnessing called industrial farming (Bouwman and others). But according to the position of Goodland and Anhang we shouldn’t be worried about overpopulation as there is enough food for everyone on the planet, but that our culture of consumption is what’s wrong. They seem to seek the solution in the changing of people’s diet in order to lower the production of meat, which in its turn would lead to less GHG emissions, less land used for agriculture, less deforestation and more food left for humans if humans would consume the food that would otherwise be fed to livestock.
Looking at this from a perspective of transnational law, there are multiple international agreements that aim to at mitigating climate change. These include the Paris agreement, the Kyoto Protocol and the UNFCCC. The Paris agreement holds a plan to globally end humanity’s damage to the climate. The core of this agreement, adopted by 197 countries worldwide, is to reinforce the global response to the danger of climate change by focusing on keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. With that, the governments agreed to aim at limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This because it would greatly reduce the impacts and risks of climate change. Furthermore, the agreements hold that countries have to strengthen their ability to deal with climate change. In order to do so, a new technology framework, appropriate financial flows, and an improved capacity building framework will be set up.
As we can see, there has finally been taken action on dealing with climate change. However, what we are trying to explain in this blog, is that the consumption and production of meat has by far the biggest impact on climate change. As described above, the effect of livestock hasn’t got as much attention as the emissions caused by the burning of fossil-fuels so far. Although there is currently some progress globally in setting up agreements in order to mitigate climate change, the agreements don’t address the problem of animal agriculture. Besides, there is even a particular trade agreement that could lead to an increase on meat consumption in the European Union.
Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is a possible trade agreement between the United States of America and the European Union. However still under negotiation, the proposal aims at encouraging multilateral economic growth and trade. At the moment, there are very high tariffs on the import of beef from the United States. Besides that, the import is limited by the regulation of the European Union concerning the refusal of import of meat produced with the aid of pharmaceutical technologies such as beta-agonists and hormones. Thus, the point of TTIP is to increase the access of the United States to the EU market for meat.
However, if TTIP would go through, it would definitely come with its consequences. There has been a lot of criticism regarding the effect TTIP could have on climate change. Many argue that TTIP is a big potential threat for climate protection. According to a report called ‘Impact Assessment on the Future of EU-US Trade Relations’, TTIP would cause an increase of 11 million metric tons of emissions on a yearly basis. So how exactly would TTIP lead to such a big increase? For example, trade in general increases economic activity, which results in an increase of anthropogenic GHG emissions. By liberalizing the international trade, the EU would also get more access to meat from the United States, thereby encouraging the consumption of meat and it could lower relative meat prices. Public health analysts argue that an increase of meat consumption can be expected, and as we discussed above, the more meat we eat, the higher the emissions of greenhouse gasses will be. All of this is at odd with the intentions of the Paris agreement and the fight against climate change.
Changing our eating habits
According to estimation of Goodland, the best strategy of cutting emission would be to change our diet or look for better alternatives when it comes to the consumption of meat. Changing our eating habits, which means eating less meat products in this case, would be the most obvious solution to mitigate climate change by meat production. However, the basis of changing eating habits seems to be primarily an individual matter. We can see the number of vegetarians and flexitarians (people who do not shun all meat but try to reduce it as much as possible) is growing. However, to achieve a real reduction of greenhouse-gases by meat production, the number of vegetarians has to increase even more. Actions like campaigns or teaching schoolchildren about the negative effects of meat consumption and production can of course contribute to this objective. But in order to achieve this goal, we need products that can substitute meat products without containing real meat. These are mostly protein based products, and are already available in a lot of supermarkets. Unfortunately, in the Netherlands, only 1% of all meat products are meat substitutes. In addition, many people think these substitutes are not as tasteful or similar to real meat.
As explained earlier in this blogpost, the possible Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the United States of America and the European Union will probably result in an increase of meat consumption. Therefore, this agreement really needs to be reconsidered and the future negative effects on climate change as a result of this agreement needs to be addressed. The most important thing is that the United States and the European Union should put climate change first. A few good first steps for the US and the EU would be to take the following three principles into account:
1) the possible regulatory and economic impacts on climate policy due to TTIP should be carefully studied,
2) the provisions of the TTIP should be supportive and completely compatible with the objectives of the climate policy, and
3) ideally, the TTIP should be “carbon neutral or better”. If not possible, TTIP should at least not cause an increase in GHG emissions.
Taking these three principles into consideration might make the TTIP better in a way that it is not a dangerous threat to climate change.
Interview with Atze Jan van der Goot
The Dutch scientist Atze Jan van der Goot is the first person on the world who created a 100% plant-based piece of meat. This meat is made of soya protein, and is in particular very special because it uses the so called ‘Shear Cell Technology’, which enables plant-based materials to form a fiber structure equal to ‘real’ meat. We had an interview with Atze Jan van der Goot where he answered our following questions:
➢ What was the reason for you to develop a 100% plant-based type of meat?
‘We have been doing research about meat substitutes in Wageningen since 2000. It was the so-called Profetas project, which also included consumer research. This consumer research showed that many consumers were looking for meat substitutes that are very similar to meat. The most sustainable meat substitute is thereby the plant-based meat substitute. These are the two reasons we started investigating this subject.’
➢ What are the developments of plant-based meat at the moment?
‘We are doing a lot with this research project. Next year, we are planning to start a huge research programme. In addition, many companies are developing more and more types of meat substitutes, for example ‘de Vegetarische Slager’ and ‘Vivera’ in the Netherlands, and ‘Beyond Meat’ and ‘Impossible Foods’ in the United States of America. There are many developments going on and I expect that we will be able to produce a lot of new products in the near future.’
➢ What are your future goals concerning the development of meat substitutes?
‘Our current goal is to make a product that is very tasteful, so that carnivores will leave the ‘real’ meat aside. In addition, there’s more focus on nutritional aspects. However, this is a future concern as this is only important if people leave half of their meat and dairy aside. In a varied diet that includes small proportions of meat and dairy, the current meat substitutes are still good products.’
➢ To which extent do you think the production of plant-based meat is better for the environment than the production of ‘real’ meat?
‘This is unquestionable, since we know this for sure. The production of meat has a huge environmental impact. Plant-based meat is thereby way better. The extent to which the production of plant-based meat is better for the environment depends on how and to what degree plant materials are being processed before it becomes a meat substitute. This is why we develop a technology that requires minimal processing and still makes good products. However, not every meat substitute is better than ‘real’ meat. Think about cultured meat for example, which is made of stem cells of animals. This kind of meat substitute is probably not more sustainable than regular meat.’
➢ Does the production of plant-based meat have any disadvantages?
‘In my opinion, I do not see any disadvantages.’
➢ Why is it so important to find alternatives for meat production? Isn’t it just an individual choice we all have to make to cut our meat consumption?
‘I wish it was just that simple. People almost seem to be addicted to meat, and some scientists even conduct research about this phenomenon. A plant-based piece of meat, which is similar to real meat, can help people make the transition to meat substitutes. If people can get used to eating less meat with the help of meat substitutes, it will probably lead to a reduce of meat consumption.’
We have discussed that livestock affects the environment in several different ways, of which GHG emissions (carbon footprint) and deforestation play the biggest role in climate change. When it comes to the carbon footprint of livestock however, there seems to be some disagreement about the amount of GHG emissions that livestock contributes, with numbers ranging from 18% until up to 51% of the world’s total GHG emissions. While critics such as Goodland estimate the total amount of emissions contributed by livestock is 51%, the official number according to the FAO is 18%. This may explain why governments seem to have given the effects of livestock on climate change relatively little attention when it comes to transnational provisions regarding global warming. The three main provisions recently made regarding climate change are the Paris agreement, the Kyoto Protocol and the UNFCCC, none of which addressing the problem of livestock as portrayed in this blog. In fact, the effects of meat consumption on climate change are threatening to increase due to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This agreement would foster the trade between the US and Europe, which could most likely result in an increase in meat consumption. As people are increasingly starting to acknowledge the claim that meat consumption is responsible for the majority of GHG emissions, the best strategy to lowering emissions, according to Goodland, is to change people’s eating habits. Changing people’s diet would not only cut back on emissions, but also save the forest, which is being used on a large scale to grow farm animals and their feed. As a result grains used to grow cattle would become available for humans and thus sustaining the increasing human population’s demand for food. Switching to a plant-based is actually supported by other contemporary scientists like Atze Jan van der Goot, who is the first person in the world to create a 100% plant-based piece of meat. At the moment people are still consuming meat at an almost addictive rate. According to van der Goot it is therefore a matter of raising awareness among people about this problem and offering a substitute that is considered just as good as meat.
Allan Matthews. “TTIP and the Potential for US Beef Imports.” Capreform.eu, 9 April, 2015.
D. Boucher. “Beef and the Paris Agreement: Changing What We Eat to Stop Causing Climate Change.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 4 May 2012.
M.C. Porterfield, K.P. Gallagher. “TTIP and Climate Change: Low Economic Benefits, Real Climate Risks.” FEPS, July 2012.
J.C.J.M. van den Bergh and W.J.W. Botzen. “A Lower Bound to the Social Cost of CO2 Emissions.” Nature Climate Change, 2014.
Paris Agreement. Retrieved from: http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/international/negotiations/paris_en
Goodland and Anhang; livestock and climate change
Dessler & Parson, 2006; Climate Change, Sustainable Development, and Human Security: A Comparative Analysis
Henning Steinfeld; Livestock’s Long Shadow
Bouwman and others, 2005; A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products.
McMichael, Anthony J., et al. “Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health.” The lancet 370.9594 (2007): 1253–1263.
Carlsson-Kanyama, Annika, and Alejandro D. González. “Potential contributions of food consumption patterns to climate change.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 89.5 (2009): 1704S-1709S.
Fiala, Nathan. “Meeting the demand: An estimation of potential future greenhouse gas emissions from meat production.” Ecological Economics 67.3 (2008): 412–419.
Wild, Florian, et al. “The evolution of a plant-based alternative to meat.” Agro FOOD Industry Hi Tech 25 (2014): 1.