Move over meat, make way for trees

29th Jan 19 by Carina Millstone, Executive Director

Individuals can help the planet with what they consume, but real change in halting Climate Change needs to come from the policy makers.

Feedback’s Executive Director Carina Millstone takes stock of the raising awareness that what we eat directly impacts on our planet, what exactly is causing the problem and who can make the lasting change needed to avoid global catastrophe.

It seems not a week goes by without a new warning that we are eating our Planet. The latest comes from the prestigious EAT- Lancet Commission. Their message is clear: we need to both fully decarbonise the global food system and stop the expansion of agricultural lands if we want to stand any chance of a climate that supports our food security.

The challenge may be massive but there is a feasible, immediate and cost-effective response: cutting meat and dairy production and consumption in high-income, industrialised countries – places like the USA and the UK, where, fortuitously, less meat also means better health.

It is no longer just about cars

In prior decades, climate change mitigation was often understood by policy makers (and the public) as cutting emissions from the energy, transport and industry sectors. Diets were not part of the picture: it’s now clear they are in fact central and critical to the health of the planet.

Reaching net zero emissions by mid-century will require not only aggressive reduction of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, but also the speedy, widespread adoption of techniques to remove said gases from the atmosphere. So-called Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) techniques range from the simple to the dystopian and downright scary, but, as the Royal Society makes clear, the only technique that is in any way deployable now is the reassuringly low tech approach of afforestation – otherwise known as planting trees. And to plant enough trees to make a dent in our climate crisis will require not only reversing the trend of deforestation, but also freeing up vast tracts of land for new trees.

The colossal ‘hoof print’ of meat and dairy

It can’t be avoided: meat and dairy production comes with a hefty toll on the land. At least one-third of crops are grown to feed animals rather than people, while pastures account for a further quarter of agricultural lands. With such a large footprint, reducing meat and diary production holds great promise for the land sparing we now know we need to keep the rise in global temperatures within 1.5 degree.

With land footprint varying considerably between different meat products, and amongst the same product depending on specific production methods and contexts, it makes sense that production and consumption of the worst climate offenders ought to be curtailed first: the American model of large-scale, industrialised, grain-fed beef, that has, thankfully, yet to reach UK shores.

Still, we cannot ignore the land footprint of British meat and dairy. The Committee on Climate Change identified a reduction of meat and dairy consumption to within the EatWell Guidelines as the single most effective intervention to free land in the UK for afforestation – by far. And the Commission’s calculation does not account for the overseas land use ‘embedded’ in British reared meat: pigs, chicken (and even farmed salmon) are often fed soya imported from South America, adding to the pressure on land on some of the most ecologically sensitive (and greatest carbon sinks) regions of the world.

Less meat, less heat

Averting catastrophic climate change requires significant, strategic, land sparing for afforestation at home and abroad, which in turn requires a shift to plant-based diets. Citizens have already started taking matters into their own hands: record numbers of Britons are reducing their meat intake or even dabbling with veganism. But difficulties in understanding the climate profile of different meat and dairy products (from the devastating to the potentially beneficial) and the pace and scale of change required, makes it too risky to leave our necessary collective shift to plant-based diets to the actions of individual citizens. Instead, the transition in diets requires leadership from our policy makers. If policy makers are serious about keeping the planet fit for human habitation, it’s time they stop ignoring The Cow in the Room.

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