Replacing meat and dairy with sustainable alternatives is a viable action for Global North countries to tackle climate change
By Raphael Podselver, UN specialist, on behalf of Four Paws, ENOUGH, A Well-Fed World, World Animal Protection and ProVeg International
Among the many messages being presented at this week’s COP27 climate summit, there is one that has not yet got the attention that it merits: the replacement of conventional meat and dairy with more sustainable plant-based alternatives to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Meat and dairy are calorie-dense and have a long tradition in our food cultures, but their production is wreaking havoc on the planet.
Around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the farming and eating of animals. For man-made methane emissions, the contributions of livestock climb higher, to around 32%.
Without shifting away from the consumption of industrialised meat and dairy, especially in the Global North, we stand little chance of meeting the international climate goals that will prevent us from spiralling towards ecosystem collapse.
In fact, the unsustainable way of producing and consuming food is predicted to prevent us from keeping global warming within the internationally agreed 1.5°C target – even if we were to immediately cut all other fossil fuel emissions.
Another part of the story is that our industrial, animal-centric food systems are closely linked to issues of food insecurity and social injustice. The overexploitation of the Global South as a source of animal feed and the swamping of markets with extremely cheap produce contributes to the marginalisation of people, especially women and Indigenous communities.
Despite this overproduction, driven by our excessive appetite for meat and dairy, food is very unevenly distributed across the globe, exacerbating food insecurity in many people. One of the reasons for this is that instead of growing crops for direct human consumption, we are growing feed for animals. About 80% of global agricultural land is dedicated to the production of animal-based products, and intensive livestock farming uses around one third of the world’s grain, and two thirds of total soya, maize, and barley. In fact, the first ships that left Ukrainian ports after the lifting of the Russian blockage carried animal feed, not human food.
This does not mean we need to completely eliminate animal products from our diets. In many less industrialised countries, as well as many indigenous communities in wealthy societies, animals are still an important nutrition source and feature of the economy. However, it does mean that in line with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, affluent societies have a special duty to shift their consumption from meat and dairy to sustainable alternatives.
A recent study by Bonn University has concluded that affluent societies will need to cut their meat intake by at least 75% in order to protect the planet’s ecosystem and ensure food security for everyone.
At the same time, countries of the global majority should not blindly copy the Western model.
Industrial livestock farming often entraps local farmers in unsustainable profit cycles rather than empowering them. Many of the conventional feed crops are not adapted to the climate in most Global South countries, need a staggering amount of water, and are much more vulnerable to changes in temperature and weather patterns.
Effective and low-cost solutions
The shift to more plant-rich diets offers an effective and low-cost solution to many of these challenges. Plant-based whole foods, as well as healthy, nutritious dairy and meat alternatives, have been found to have a much lower ecological footprint compared to their animal-based counterparts.
In addition to being on average much less resource-intensive, it is estimated that a transition to more plant-based diets has the potential to cut annual agricultural emissions in high-income countries by up to 60%. As recently as this year, the latest IPCC report stressed the potential of diet shift and the positive role that plant-based foods can play in facilitating such a transition. More balanced, plant-rich diets also have the potential to prevent up to 11.5 million diet-related deaths annually and substantially reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases.
Fortunately, there are now many tasty options to replace meat and dairy on the table. In fact, the global market for plant-based meat and dairy alternatives has rocketed in recent years. Add to that the fact that regulatory approval of cultivated meat is very much on the horizon in the US and EU, one can see there is now a viable pathway to take much of the emissions out of our food production.
Unfortunately, high-level climate discourse has been silent on the role of food systems and current policies are far from encouraging sustainable dietary change. While it is imperative that the hidden negative externalities of meat and dairy are finally reflected in their shelf prices, sustainable plant-based foods need to be more accessible so that everyone can afford the transition. What we need is concrete and ambitious action on an inclusive and holistic just livestock transition.
At COP27, several food-related pavilions will finally address this much needed food systems transformation. One of these event spaces, the Food4Climate Pavilion, has been organised by a coalition of more than 20 NGOs and businesses to push for more sustainable ways of producing and consuming food across the world.
COP27 is the time for global leaders to realise that the status quo of food is untenable. If we want to ensure access to healthy, nutritious food for everyone and get on track to meet our climate targets, we need ambitious commitments on shifting our consumption from meat and dairy to more sustainable alternatives and ensure everyone has access to healthy, climate-friendly food.
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