Our nutrition has to become less carbon intensive

Simply switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet would drastically reduce a country’s carbon emissions with no negative impact on health, bearing no direct financial cost except on producers, and in a way that takes little time.

Key stats:

  • 19%-29%: The contribution of food systems to global greenhouse gas emissions in 2008
  • 3.3t CO2e: The annual amount of carbon emissions of an average meat-based diet
  • 1.7t CO2e: The annual amount of carbon emissions of a vegetarian diet

Meat and dairy consumption are major drivers of climate change, but traditionally this has not been the public’s perception. Most people would rank the environmental impact of livestock and agriculture as much lower than it actually is. The truth is that the livestock industry one of the major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. By conservative estimates it accounts for 15% of global emissions, with higher estimates putting the total amount at an aggressive 51%. Regardless which figure is more accurate, the impact is huge.

Now awareness of the effect what we eat has on the environment is growing, and information on the difference in carbon foodprints according to dietary choices is enlightening. The diet of an average meat-eater will produce 3.3t CO2e annually, for a vegetarian this figure falls to 1.7t CO2e, and for a vegan it’s even lower at 1.5t CO2e. For a diet that is lower in meat consumption (but does contain some beef) the annual amount is 2.5t CO2e. This is +160% of a vegan diet.

This difference in amounts is in a large part accounted for by beef consumption. Switching out beef for chicken, fish and pork results in a reduction of 0.6t CO2e when compared to the low-meat diet. In fact, some studies show that if everyone in the US opted to eat beans instead of beef then this one change would enable the country to meet its greenhouse gas emission targets for 2020. The statistics are clear — if we want to reduce the amount of emissions we produce then adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet will have the greatest impact.

A tax on meat might be the answer

Simply switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet would drastically reduce a country’s carbon emissions with no negative impact on health, bearing no direct financial cost except on producers, and in a way that takes little time.

The percentage of a population that is vegetarian varies from country to country, but rarely exceeds 10% (except in the example of India, which has a high number of vegetarians for religious reasons). Simply switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet would drastically reduce a country’s carbon emissions with no negative impact on health, bearing no direct financial cost except on producers, and in a way that takes little time.

As the world struggles to reduce the amount of carbon emissions, we can expect governments to look towards a reduction in meat consumption as a method of bringing down the amount of emissions. One potential method is to introduce a tax on meat. This will raise the price of meat, acting as a deterrent for meat eating, and the increased revenue can be put towards offsetting carbon emissions. With 90% of people being meateaters, we can expect strong opposition to this move on almost all fronts.

Lab-grown meat is on the way

Hope for devoted meateaters may come in the form of lab-grown meat. There is currently a huge push to produce meat in the laboratory rather than through conventional farming. This will greatly reduce the amount of carbon generated in the meat production process. While growing meat in a lab will still require energy resources, it won’t be comparable to the amount of land, animal feed, water, energy and more that it takes to produce meat currently. There is a massive amount of investment being made into this technology by some big names, such as Richard Branson and Bill Gates. The price of lab-grown meat has plummeted over the past few years, and if it follows that current trend then we can expect affordable lab-grown meat to hit the shelves imminently.

Until a trend like lab-grown meat becomes the absolute norm, the current rate of meat consumption cannot continue. The world population is growing, and civilization has to move away from carbon-intensive forms of nutrition. For the human population of earth to continue to survive, the 90% of meateaters might need to get used to eating less of what they want.

Expect a sudden appearance on voices calling to tax meat in a 2 year timeframe in Western Europe and especially Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

Further Reading: Related Start Ups and Organizations

References

  • EPA, global emissions, 25% on agriculture (https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data)

This series of articles has been prepared with the support of our partner Viessmann — they’re celebrating 100 years of their company this year (2017) and are actively involved in positively shaping the next 100 years.

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