175 calories, 8.6 grams of fat and 22.7 grams of protein¹. But how many greenhouse gases does it hide? That is of course not the kind of question that you are likely to be asked by any nutritionist, but if you care not just about your own personal health, but also that of our planet, it is just as important a question.
Studies have shown time and time again that consumption of meat has a tremendous impact on climate change. And with 2016 being the warmest year ever recorded, we cannot afford to ignore what could be a key weapon in the fight against climate change.
We might not be aware when we are casually chewing on a succulent medium-rare sirloin but red meat actually requires twenty-eight times more land to produce than pork or chicken, eleven times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions²! When compared to other food staples such as potatoes, wheat or rice, the impact of beef is even more extreme as it requires 160 times more land and produces eleven times more greenhouse gases².
This is not good climate news especially when one considers that the average American adult consumed 90 kilograms of the “Big Four” livestock — cows, chickens, pigs and sheep —in 2014, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The global average for the same year was 34 kilograms³. Another study which looked at British people’s diets concluded that meat-rich diets, that is diets that included more than 100g of meat per day, resulted in 7.2kg of carbon dioxide emissions³.
If our meat-eating habits are not curbed, in three decades, emissions related to agriculture and food production are likely to account for half of the world’s available “carbon budget”.
And whereas energy generation and transport have been sectors where action is being taken to curb emissions, there is little appetite at the moment to do the same when it comes to meat or more generally food production.
Eating climate-friendly is a healthy option
While respecting personal choices when it comes to diet is very important, it is important to also be aware of the facts. And the reality is staggering: widespread adoption of vegetarian diet would cut food-related emissions by 63% with vegetarian and fish-eating diets contributing about 3.8kg of CO2 per day, while vegan only 2.9kg³. What is more, switching to a diet with less meat, could be a win-win situation for many people’s health. If we all adhered to health guidelines about meat consumption that alone could still cut global food-related emissions by nearly a third by 2050, the same study found. If you think about the drastic changes needed to transform our energy, transport and industrial processes, simply amending your weekly grocery list must seem a lot easier especially given the tremendous impact it can have on our climate. This is a case where numbers truly matter, as it is only through a collective switch that we would be able to reap the benefits.
No matter how much of a meat lover you may be, there is unfortunately no denying the impacts of livestock on our climate. According to the UN FAO, about 44% of livestock emissions are in the form of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, while the rest is almost equally shared between Nitrous Dioxide and Carbon Dioxide (CO2, 27 percent). This means that livestock represents 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions⁴.
Beans for beef
Adding to the already extremely large pile of evidence, is a study from a team of researchers led by Loma Linda University researcher Helen Harwatt, PhD. The study looked at the environmental impact of swapping beans out for meat. It concluded that by simply eating beans instead of beef, the United States would immediately achieve approximately 50 – 75% of its greenhouse gas reduction targets for the year 2020. Given that pulses and beans are much more inexpensive compared to beef, one could even argue that in this case not only is action against climate change not going to cost the average American, but it is likely to save them money. What is more, by switching to beans there is no loss in nutritional value for example in terms of protein or calories⁵. The team also explored the health benefits that this could also bring about: by swapping beans for meat the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes could be reduced. What is more, with a lesser demand for beef, land could be freed up for other uses. Some of it could be used to restore natural habitats which would further support redressing climate change. According to the researchers, the amount of land that could be otherwise used would be up to 42% of US cropland⁵!
As Dr. Harwatt notes, “the study will be useful in demonstrating just how much of an impact changes in food production can make and increase the utility of such options in climate-change policy”. What the study also highlights is that to meet the ambitions of the Climate Agreement, which prescribes that to avoid dangerous climate change we need to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we need to stop limiting ourselves to actions that are largely focused on CO2 reductions. If we are to tackle climate change effectively, we need to also look at the impacts of other greenhouse gases such as methane which is emitted primarily due to livestock.
But while we are waiting for policy-makers to catch up with evidence and start seriously considering what the research team has cleverly called the “beans for beef” scenario, we need to amplify the impact of our own individual actions. This is why Kristie Middleton, Senior Director of Food Policy of the Humane Society in the United States, authored the book MeatLess: Transform the Way You Eat and Live – One Meal at a Time which provides concrete strategies, recipes, swaps, and shopping advice to help people reduce their meat consumption, whether they are doing this to look and feel better, reduce their ecological footprint or to help animals.
So, in the end, perhaps we should expand the saying “you are what you eat” to include the impacts our eating habits are having on the entire plant.