Changing our diets to curb Climate Change?
The United Nations’ (UN) International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management recently released a report calling for the transition away from meat and dairy-centered diets and toward more plant-based diets as an important way for individuals to help curb climate change.
Connecting meat and dairy consumption to climate change is nothing new. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 report titled Livestock’s Long Shadow highlighted the significance of raising animals for food has on greenhouse gas emissions. Debate arose as to whether raising animals for food contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation industry. Whether animal agriculture takes first place or second (or even fourth place), it’s time we admit that our high consumption of meat and dairy is a significant player in climate change—it’s just not sustainable.
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said:
“The Panel has reviewed all the available science and concludes that two broad areas are currently having a disproportionately high impact on people and the planet’s life support systems – these are energy in the form of fossil fuels and agriculture, especially the raising of livestock for meat and dairy products.”
The facts in the report have also been detailed elsewhere, from the Audobon Society to the Smithsonian Institute to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The report states that animals raised for food are fed more than half of all world crops. In the United States, these animals are accountable for over half the water consumption. Is it 12 pounds of grain used to create one pound of beef or is it 16 pounds? Is it 2,500 gallons of water or 6,500 gallons? People get preoccupied in the numbers debate, but whether it’s 12 pounds or 16 pounds, fact is that it takes a lot of grain and a lot of water to create smaller amounts of food called meat and dairy.
Why does this matter?
Imagine if demand for animal products reduced significantly and therefore livestock numbers decreased. We would need less land for the livestock (our meat demand is responsible for 70 percent of the Amazon deforestation), less land to grow the food to feed the livestock, and we would retain more water in our aquifers. In return, we’d have less water and land pollution from farm runoff and less greenhouse gasses being emitted by animals, the processing of animals, and the production of food for animals. Seems like a lot of potential change that is directly in the hands of consumers.
Despite the facts, changing one’s diet doesn’t seem to sit well with many of us. When the 2006 UN report came out, critics noted that Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and one of the authors of the report, was already a vegetarian due to his religion. And with that, his status as a Nobel Prize winner, as a Ph.D. in engineering and economics, and as a researcher at Columbia and Yale, were all thrown out the window because he must just be on a vegetarian/religious agenda.
Are we afraid to change our diets? The report is not suggesting a 100 percent vegan diet (although by simple deduction, the closer to a vegan diet the better to curb climate change); it is merely stating the importance of reducing our meat and dairy consumption.
Contrary to popular belief, we have not always been the meat eaters that we are today. It has only been since the 1950s that meat and dairy consumption really began increasing. Previously, meat was expensive and many families might have only had it once or twice a week—as opposed to today’s twice a day. Thanks to factory farming and government subsidies, that all changed.
So when our world’s top scientists not only recommend eating less animal products but stress that “a substantial reduction of [environmental] impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products,” are we willing to give up just a few of our burgers for a vegetarian option?
It seems worth it to me. You in?
The June 2010 UN report: Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials.
Vanessa Meier received her M.S. in geology and has performed research stints for the United States Geological Survey and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She has retired from a life in the laboratory to advocate for the consumer’s power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly through a plant-based diet.