Breaking the silence: Meat and climate change
by Ian Sinclair
18 December 2014
It’s an unusual departure for a think-tank used to discussing regional conflict and international diplomacy but Chatham House’s new report on livestock farming and climate change is hugely important.
The research paper notes that the consumption of meat and dairy produce is a major driver of climate change. With the global livestock industry producing more carbon emissions than all planes, trains, automobiles and ships combined “curbing the world’s appetite for meat is essential to avoid devastating climate change”, The Guardian summarised.
The study comes on the back of a plethora of recent research and expert testimony linking meat-eating, especially beef, with the on-going climate crisis, including the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Nature science journal and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at Manchester University. “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases”, explained Lord Stern, the author of the seminal Stern Report on climate change, in 2009. “It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”
Taking Stern’s advice and moving towards a vegetarian or, better still, a vegan diet, is what might be called a win-win-win situation – as well as helping the climate it would improve human health and mean less animals are slaughtered with all the horror this brings. “Diets high in animal products are associated with an increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and several forms of cancer”, notes Chatham House. Since 2007 the World Cancer Research Fund has recommended that people do not eat any processed meat because of the link with a number of cancers.
Quoting a recent review of the academic literature, Chatham House goes on to explain that mostly plant-based diets with little processed foods are “decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention”. For example, research from Loma Linda University in California tracking 73,000 thousand people for almost six years found vegetarians tended to live longer than meat-eaters and were less likely to get heart disease. Compiling data from 18 academic papers, the Nature journal article also notes that relative to conventional omnivorous diets, a vegetarian diet was linked to a 20 percent reduction in heart disease, as well as a 41 percent reduction in Type 2 diabetes.
Considering all this evidence, governments have had very little to say about the issue. Chatham House argues they may be concerned about the public backlash that might come from attempts to interfere in people’s diets and home lives. Frustratingly, the green movement has also been relatively quiet about linking diet and climate change, with little attempt to promote vegetarianism or veganism as viable responses. “I think they focussed grouped it and it’s a political loser”, the US food journalist Michael Pollan, speaking in the new documentary Cowspiracy, says about environmental NGOs. “They’re membership organisations… they are looking to maximise the number of people making contributions and if they get identified as being anti-meat or challenging people on their everyday habits, something that is so dear to people, it will hurt with their fundraising.” Corporate power is also a powerful block on radical change. In a 2010 lecture Samuel Jutzi, Director of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), warned: “I have now been 20 years in a multilateral organisation which tries to develop guidance and codes for good agricultural practice, but the real, true issues are not being addressed by the political process because of the influence of lobbyists, of the true powerful entities”. Speaking about the publication of the major 2006 FAO report on livestock’s responsibility for nearly one-third of global emissions, he told the audience “You wouldn’t believe how much we were attacked”.
While governments and the green movement have been acquiescing there has been a large increase in global meat consumption – especially in countries such as China and Brazil. But we shouldn’t be downhearted. Change is possible, with studies showing many people in the West have been reducing their consumption of meat, and red meat specifically, for both health and environmental reasons. Indeed, food is the one issue that we get to vote on every day. Three times a day, in fact.
With the IPCC recently warning climate change is set to inflict “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” unless emissions are cut rapidly and sharply, it is imperative that we start talking about food right now. Because if you care about the wellbeing of the planet and everyone and everything on it then you need to ask whether your diet is part of the solution, or part of the problem.