If you and your loved ones haven’t already cut down on the amount of meat you eat, it’s time to start now. That’s the conclusion of a significant new report into how what we put on our forks directly affects what we pump into the atmosphere.
The study warns that unless people make a significant change to their diets, swapping meat and animal products for plant-based foods, we will miss important carbon-reduction targets and it will be impossible to avoid the worst effects of climate change. While governments and business have the bulk of work to do in changing food systems for the better, it’s a wake-up call for individuals and a reminder that every one of us has a role to play in protecting the planet.
“An important first step would be to align national food-based dietary guidelines with the present evidence on healthy eating and the environmental impacts of diets,” the report says. That means adopting a plant-based “flexitarian” diet, and eating meat less than once a week.
If you’re looking for guidance on what animal products you need to cut back on, the study says western countries’ consumption of beef, the most carbon intensive and environmentally destructive meat, needs to fall by 90 per cent, and milk by 60 per cent. On a global scale, the average person needs to cut their beef consumption by three-quarters, their egg consumption by half and their pork consumption by 90 per cent, while eating three times as many beans and pulses, and four times as many nuts and seeds.
Increasing numbers of people in rapidly industrialising countries are now able to afford meat-rich western diets – at a growing cost to planet, in terms of deforestation, water wastage and pollution, and the millions of tonnes of harmful greenhouse gases produced by livestock. Land that is used to raise cattle and grow feed is also land that is not being used to grow crops for humans. With the global population expected to hit 10 billion this century, these issues are only going to grow worse unless the way we eat changes, the report says. And, concurring with the findings of another study this year, it adds that avoiding meat and dairy is the “single biggest way” we can reduce our impact on the Earth.
The research, published in the journal Nature, was led by Oxford University’s Professor Marco Springmann. He called the findings “shocking”, adding: “We are really risking the sustainability of the whole system. If we are interested in people being able to farm and eat, then we better not do that.” As well as moving to a meat free diet, individuals could also help by putting pressure on their governments to up their game, he said: “I think we can do it, but we really need much more proactive governments to provide the right framework. People can make a personal difference by changing their diet, but also by knocking on the doors of their politicians and saying we need better environmental regulations – that is also very important. Do not let politicians off the hook.” A report by Springmann in 2016 found that carbon emissions from food would drop by two-thirds if the world went meat free.
Professor Johan Rockstrom, a member of the research team, said it would only be possible to feed 10 billion people if the way we eat and farm changed radically, adding a stark warning: “Greening the food sector or eating up our planet: this is what is on the menu today.”