Meat on the plate? Livestock rearing for food major cause of climate crisis

Experts say burning fossil fuels needs to stop, but equally important is the need to cut down livestock consumption

Contrary to common belief, livestock produces just 18 per cent of global calories and 37 per cent of protein, but is responsible for more than half of food’s greenhouse gas emissions.. Pic: Pixabay

About 25% of greenhouse gases emission is caused by food production systems and 50% of it comes from our meat consumption. Yet, the ongoing climate summit at Glasgow, COP26, chose not to discuss the burning issue, instead focusing on fossil fuels only.

As per one estimate, food system emissions alone threaten warming above 1.5℃ — the threshold set by the world to save the human race from climate catastrophe. Experts say that burning fossil fuels needs to stop no doubt, but equally important is the need to cut down livestock consumption for the sake of our survival.

At CoP26, a good number of countries have promised to stop deforestation and reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent in the next decade. However, meeting the above two targets is impossible without control over livestock population, which is greatly responsible for deforestation due to over-grazing and methane emission. Ironically, none of the 45 signatories to the above two commitments spoke of meat consumption. In fact, the US agriculture secretary claimed in an interview that Americans don’t need to produce or eat less meat at all.


Why and how meat consumption effects climate change:

1. Carbon footprint of beef and lamb 24 times that of beans and lentils

Cows, sheep and goats need lots of land for grazing which could otherwise store more carbon dioxide in the form of forests, grasslands and even food crops for humans. These animals produce methane (a greenhouse gas) in their digestive systems, which is released in the air in large quantities.

According to The Conservation, the carbon footprint of beef and lamb is three times that of pork, poultry or farmed fish per 100g of protein and 24 times higher than pulses such as beans and lentils.

Contrary to common belief, livestock produces just 18 per cent of global calories and 37 per cent of protein, but is responsible for more than half of food’s greenhouse gas emissions.

 2. Cutting meat consumption must to save biodiversity

While half of the land on earth is under agriculture, a majority of it is used to rear and feed livestock. In general, farming results in deforestation, which, in turn, causes biodiversity loss. Beef production is considered the most important cause for loss of tropical forest cover.

A drastic cut in meat consumption will ease the pressure on grazing land and make more land available for afforestation.

3. Meat consumption on the rise

According to The Conversation, global meat production has gone up four times mainly because of exponential rise in human population. Since 1961, meat supply per person has gone up from 23kg to more than 43kg while the human population has more than doubled (from 3 billion to 7 billion).

Also read: What ‘veg mutton’ offering to Kali tells about Bengal’s culinary history

The number of chickens killed each year has shot up phenomenally from 6.6 billion to 68.8 billion (10 times rise), of pigs from 0.4 billion to 1.5 billion and cows from 0.2 billion to 0.3 billion.

Developed nations, with a host of resources at their disposal, consume more fossil fuels as well as meat. The average US citizen needs 124 kg meat a year, whereas a Chinese would need only 61 kg. On the other hand, an Indian would only need 4 kg meat a year.

4. Sustainability in food production

Health and climate experts suggest daily food, in high- and middle- income countries should contain high amounts of vegetables, wholegrains and pulses. If needed, little amounts of red and processed meats could be added.

A Planetary Health Diet, considered good for humans and the environment, emphasizes on a plant-forward diet where whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes comprise a greater proportion of foods consumed. Meat and dairy constitute important parts of the diet, but in significantly smaller proportions than whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.

Also read: In Kottayam, it’s traders vs meat lovers over rising beef prices

The average diet of people residing in poor countries is very low in nutrition. Hence, they may increase meat and fish consumption, but their counterparts in rich nations should drastically cut down on non-vegetarian food.

To take healthy and sustainable diets to more number of people, governments must remove subsidies on livestock farming, encourage livestock farmers to shift to alternative farming systems and bringing in behaviour changes through prominent positioning and cheaper prices for healthy and sustainable food.