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What’s the beef? Diet as a climate solution
As we come out of a swelteringly hot and catastrophe-laden summer, we’re reminded of what cold is by our reluctance to turn on the heating in the face of rising energy costs, living costs, inflation and interest rates. As we stare longingly outside past the droplet-covered windows, yearning for a world where wealthy buffoons don’t toy with our entire savings and futures on a whim, we finally have time to reflect on what the hell happened.
The UK reached record temperatures this summer, our Queen died and our prime minister was replaced by one with even less concern for the environment. In the meantime, Russia’s deplorable invasion continued, Europe, Siberia and the US were ravaged by forest fires and Pakistan, who contributes less than 1% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is suffering its worst floods in recent history. China has simultaneously weathered heatwaves, droughts and floods, the battering of Cuba, the US and Canada by hurricane Ian has highlighted the intensification of storm systems and the sabotage of Nord Stream has led to one of the worst methane leaks in history. New oil projects, which musnt’ go ahead if we are to stay within safe limits of global heating, are well underway with 40% of the planned 14,000 miles of new pipeline already under construction. The list of cheerful calamities goes on.
Whilst it is easy to feel powerless and despondent in the face of these events, arguing that change must come from above and that individual action is meaningless, WeBeGreen disagrees. Yes, a certain amount of warming is already “baked-in” but we believe that the systemic changes we desperately need will come from individual action. From action that rallies communities to orchestrate change by applying pressure above, from below. We seek to encourage and facilitate this action on our platform and growing network.
On that note, let’s talk about what might be the single most important individual change we can make. One that can reduce not only our carbon emissions but also our water consumption, water pollution, land use, deforestation and a plethora of health issues.
That change is one to a plant-based diet. One which doesn’t depend on animal agriculture. One which uses plants in innovative ways as alternatives to the foods we’re accustomed to. One which provides a very real climate solution. So… What’s the beef?
Climate Change -
Animal agriculture accounts for 14.5% of all global GHG emission¹-²-³ Most of these emissions come in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and ammonia (NH3).¹³ These emissions are split into three groups: conversion of forests & prairies to pasture & cropland, processes linked to animal feed production & animal digestion, and waste decomposition.⁴ As we know, not all emissions are equal. Nitrous oxide and methane are particularly important as their warming effects are 256 and 86 times that of CO2, lingering for 114 and 100 years, in the atmosphere, respectively.⁶ See our “Laundry Days” article for more information about this.
Animal agriculture, which includes not only meat production but also dairy, seafood, and eggs¹¹ is now placed firmly at the top of the podium for methane emissions at 3.49 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent and is the third largest emitting industry of CO2, after Energy at 35% and Transport at 16.2%.³
If all the cattle in the world rose up, ( and ate us? Just kidding) united and formed a nation, let’s call it the “Republic of Cattle’’, it would rank as the third largest CO2 emitting country after the USA and China. The Internet ranked 6th in a similar exercise.
To highlight just how misplaced and misdirected some of our concerns are, the aviation industry, which is responsible for only 1.9% of global GHG emissions, encourages us to “offset” our flight emissions. However, the thought of offsetting the embodied carbon of a burger or a steak barely crosses our minds.³ The same is true for plastic bags that have percolated through our collective consciousness. Wynes and Nicholas show that reusable over single-use is less than 1% effective compared to going a year without eating meat.¹⁴
Animal agriculture has and has had a significant effect on our climate. In some cases much more than we may have expected or that may even have been intuitive. We would be better served reconsidering our food and diet choices before reconsidering our holiday destination.
Deforestation and land for livestock -
To feed livestock we must grow crops, and to grow crops we require land. Globally, 50% of our habitable land is used for agriculture. 83% of that land, so ⅓ of the total, is allocated to animal agriculture. The equivalent to the size of the United States, Russia, China and India combined. And despite its gargantuan spread, it only produces 18% of our calories, calories which are primarily consumed in developed countries. This 80/20 split is a good example of the Pareto Principle where 80% of land produces 20% of calories and 20% of land produces 80% of calories.
This woeful inefficiency is highlighted below:
100 calories fed to a cow -> returns 40 calories as milk — a 60% calorie loss
100 calories fed to chicken → returns 20cal in eggs — a 80% calorie loss
100 calories fed to a pig/chicken -> returns 10 calories as meat — a 90% calories loss
100 calories fed to a cow -> returns 3 calories as meat — a 97% calorie loss
After millennia of optimisation, animal agriculture is hitting declining returns in quality and efficiency while plant-based foods have plenty of potential to overcome these limitations. Spurred on by the realisation that conventional protein production is a “massively disproportionate squanderer of the Earth’s resources”, Solar Foods have turned to microbe fermentation for protein production. They claim it is twenty times more efficient than photosynthesis.
55% of global deforestation is driven by pasture and feed crop expansion. Animal agriculture is responsible for more than 80% of the deforestation in Brazil and is the world’s greatest cause of habitat loss.⁵ Consider that Brasil deforested seven times the surface area of Manhattan in the Amazon in 2021 alone. Tragically, this deforestation occurs in some of the richest ecosystems on the planet. This has led to a colossal loss of biodiversity and wildlife, expunging the potential for many foods and medicine. According to the Living Planet Report, wildlife populations have dropped by 70% since 1970. Furthermore, where livestock are kept, large predators are culled. Only 4% of mammals on Earth are wildlife, the rest are humans and livestock.
Soy is a primary ingredient in plant-based foods, and it often gets blamed along with its consumers, for driving deforestation, habitat degradation and biodiversity loss. In reality, 77% of grown soybean is used as feed for the billions of animals we farm every year. Only 7% is used for plant-based foods such as tofu and 13% is used in oils.²²
We currently produce enough food annually for 1.5 times the global population, yet almost 1 billion go hungry.⁵-²⁵ The reason being industrially produced grain crops go to confined animal feedlots rather than being made available to the one billion hungry. As Eric Holt-Giménez puts it — “the call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritise the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.”
“Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity” — As an example: average farm sizes vary from 0.5 hectares in Bangladesh to 3000 hectares in Australia.¹¹ An IAASTD report concluded that “agroecology — sustainable farming practices that work with nature — and locally based food economies were the best strategies for combating poverty and hunger, over global markets”. Another report by the UN in 2010 advocated structural reforms and a shift to agroecology to fight world hunger. Finally, research suggests that the highly contextual difference in yield between organic and conventional crops can and will be overcome.²¹ The ethos of Riverford Farms in Devon comes to mind.
Over half of the UK’s land cover is allocated to raising livestock.¹² The human population takes up only 7% of the land surface with 83% of the population living in urban areas.⁵ The country is in fact dominated by pasture and arable land, yet it is handed over to livestock farmers making it inaccessible to the public.
The 300,000 new-builds a year the UK requires to keep up with demand encroach not on the swaths of agricultural land but rather the 7% of the urban area we already occupy. Combine that with strict trespass laws and the perception of a dense, urban and built-up landscape is amplified. All rather unnecessary when you consider that the protein needed to feed 10 billion people could be grown in an area the size of greater London through protein-producing bacteria.
For those who find this prospect unpalatable, consider that if the USA used all its cropland to grow food for humans rather than for animals, American farmers would feed more than twice as many people.⁴ However, as we already produce enough food to feed 10–14 billion people, that would be unnecessary. So the question is… What would we do with all that reclaimed land?
Water consumption and pollution -
Agriculture guzzles 92% of our freshwater. One third is used up for the cultivation of feed crops for animal agriculture. It drains aquifers that could be used for drinking water and wastes rainwater that could be used to grow food for humans. A study found that the plant-based Beyond Burger had >99% less impact on water scarcity than a quarter pound of U.S. beef.⁸
Whilst there are many contenders for the title of “biggest threat to water quality”, eutrophication takes the biscuit. Eutrophication occurs when the nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers along with the surplus of animal manure from farm¹⁵ makes their way into waterways. Here it stimulates the growth of algal blooms which suffocate aquatic life. A large pig farm in the US produces more excrement than the city of Philadelphia and yet does not have the necessary treatment facilities. This means that manure sits in open lagoons until it is sprayed over nearby fields, thus creating extreme health risks for local communities. Brittany, notorious for its substantial pig farming industry, contends with algal blooms toxic enough to kill people and animals.⁹ It is a major source of river pollution in the UK. Where there are farms, there are always dying waterways. Due to underfunded and lax regulators, illegal dumping is almost always worth the risk.⁵
Plant-based meat produces no manure, it requires only a fraction of water and cropland that conventional meat does, and thanks to efficient agroecology techniques uses considerably less fertiliser.
Disease risk -
Growing demand for meat has led to intensified livestock farming systems.¹⁷ 70% of livestock worldwide are reared in these systems also known as “factory farms”.¹⁰ They are linked with a series of adverse animal welfare effects²⁰-²³ as well as an increased dependence on antibiotics. 71% of global antibiotics are used in factory farms to combat increased disease prevalence and boost food conversion rates.
Since healthy animals are fed low doses of antibiotics prophylactically to not only prevent disease but also speed up growth, bacteria have ample opportunity to adapt. They become resistant and share resistance genes through horizontal gene transfer.⁴⁵ 20 of the 27 antibiotics used in animal agriculture are also used in human medicine. When the bacteria become resistant, hospitals can no longer defend against them and our last line of defence is breached.⁴⁵ Incidentally, these very bacteria can also be absorbed by plant roots. Antibiotic resistance is increasing and so is the prevalence of antibiotics in our environment.³³ 58% of antibiotics are excreted; whilst some break down quickly, others take years to fully degrade.⁷ In light of this, eating meat but refusing vaccines seems like a sad irony.
Unsurprisingly, this increase is associated with very real and significant financial costs. Estimates predict that if left unchecked, by 2050, drug-resistant microbes could kill 10 million people each year, more than currently die of cancer, and cause $100 trillion in economic damage.⁴
Suspiciously, self-regulated standards such as the UK’s Red Tractor make it difficult to verify but it’s understood a minimum of 85% of the UK’s farmed land animals live in these factory farms, with some sources claiming up to 97%.¹⁵-³⁰ These practices and food products are prevalent and ubiquitous, not restricted to only some meat products. It’s the vast majority.
Intensive farming practices also amplify the risk of zoonoses, such as coronaviruses.³⁴ Reducing the global consumption of meat and other animal-sourced products could moderate these risks and alleviate animal suffering.³⁵
Finally, overconsumption of animal-sourced foods is a major driver of chronic human disease. Clear causal relationships between cardiovascular disease, diabetes, various cancers, high cholesterol and cognitive decline have been established with eating meat and dairy.¹⁹-²⁷ Whilst healthcare has generally increased life expectancy, we suffer more from diseases impacted by diet and other lifestyle factors. In big meat-consuming countries such as Australia, these diseases are responsible for 9 in 10 premature deaths.²⁰ That amounts to 41 million premature deaths globally caused by lifestyle choices.²⁷ In the spite of the efforts of Big Food, the benefits of low-meat diets continue to be promoted by nutrition experts, dieticians and health institutions whilst processed meat products are re-classified as known carcinogens with frightening regularity.²⁶
Benefits of a shift to a plant based system -
Looking at a comparison of conventional meat products with their plant- based alternatives we see that:
Plant-based meat emits 30–90% less GHG than its conventional alternative
Plant-based meat uses 72–99% less water than its conventional alternative
Plant-based meat uses 47–99% less land than its conventional alternative
Plant-based meat cause 51–92% less aquatic nutrient pollution than its conventional alternative
Most strikingly, the lowest-impact animal products exceed those of plant-based substitutes in terms of environmental impact, further underlining the importance of dietary change.
A switch to plant-based alternatives of as little as 10% by 2030 could save 176 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, 38 million hectares of land and 8.6 billion m3 of water.¹⁸ Why stop at 10%?
In their report on Climate Change and Land, the IPCC (2019) emphasised the importance of a shift to sustainable diets rich in plant-based foods. This could reduce GHG emissions by up to 8.0 of the 50 Gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year we produce, along with parallel beneﬁts for human health and biodiversity conservation.²⁵-³²
Developing nations are increasingly adopting an “affluent diet”, where meat is central to the meal. To match demand, meat production is estimated to increase by 50% between 2013 and 2050.² This would mean increasing the number of animals we raise and slaughter to 120 billion a year, up from 80 billion. As our appetite for meat increases so do the associated environmental damages. To quote Simon Hill, “We’ve turned this place into a giant farm”. It’s clear that animal agriculture disproportionately affects our climate, our land, our water supply and our health. Yet companies like Rumin8 and Zelp continue to attempt to solve one aspect, in their case reducing methane emissions through food supplements and masks, without contemplating all environmental aspects or animal welfare. In trying to solve one of the problems, they are delaying the solution and squandering funds that would be better invested elsewhere.
In the US, Animal agriculture generates roughly $35 billion more than plant agriculture but incurs considerably higher expenses at $55.8 billion.¹⁶ Startups like Climate Refarm are addressing this flagrant lack of business acumen by working with farmers to shift to plant crops and incentivising food providers with carbon revenue.
Food and diet are climate solutions! The IPCC, the UN, health experts and numerous institutions now consider shifting to plant-rich diets as a vital strategy in achieving a sustainable global food system and in combating an important driver of climate change. As George Monbiot states, “We can produce more food with less farming”.
Yet, we are consistently misdirected, consistently misinformed and placated into believing the status quo must be the right and only way. We suffer from a severe case of thinking inside the box. We make minor tweaks to our existing ways of life without being brave enough to consider something remotely different. We are perpetually misled into thinking there is nothing we can do — that our individual actions are meaningless and that we cannot have an impact. WeBeGreen argues that as consumers, in our numbers, we decide what is produced, we can shape the agricultural landscape. If demand dries up, so will production.
A study by Nicole Allenden et al. 2022 found that a plant-based diet had the least impact on the environment. Switching from a high-meat diet to a plant-based diet would cut GHG emissions from our food by 60%.²⁸ However, its mass adoption was deemed low in probability. Results showed less restrictive diets, such as the Mediterranean diet*, were more agreeable to people in high-income and high-meat consuming countries. Whilst this highlights either inflexibility or sheer indifference to the issues we face, a low-meat diet is still a great improvement and needs to happen now.
Plant-based diets can also provide financial relief. They regularly rank cheapest in diet studies and a survey commissioned by Veganuary found that home-cooked vegan meals were on average 40% cheaper than the meat/fish-based alternatives.³⁶
To ensure you don’t leave with a bad taste in your mouth, an extraordinary amount has already been achieved in regards to the subjective matter of flavour. Despite only being around for a short while, plant-based meats are improving in bounds and leaps (unlike their animal counterparts) as anyone who’s munched on a Beyond or Impossible Burger can attest. But consider for a second that merely four crops provide half of the world’s food calories, yet more than 2 million distinct varieties are recorded in seed vaults.¹¹ With this treasure trove to choose from the possibilities are endless and it’s only a matter of time before meat becomes a wasteful, inefficient and cruel memory.
We don’t have much time but we do have the incentives. We do have the alternatives. And we can clearly see the benefits. All it takes is a momentous shift in our collective mindsets.
No processed meat; small amounts of red meat (beef, lamb, pork; one serving per week); moderate amounts of ﬁsh, seafood, poultry, eggs and dairy (2–3 servings per week); plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and olive oil)
Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet
Poore & Nemeck, 2018 — https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aaq0216
Wynes, S., & Nicholas, K. A. (2017). The climate mitigation gap: Education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters, 12(7), 074024. 10.1088/1748–9326/aa7541
(Gregory and Grandin, 2007) — Animal Welfare and Meat Production
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). Australia’s Health 2020: In brief. Australia’s Health Series no. 17, Cat. no. AUS 232. AIHW, Australian Government, Canberra.
(Peden et al., 2018) — https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016815911830100X
Plant-based diets and their impact on health, sustainability and the environment: A review of the evidence — https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/349086
https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aaq0216 Poor & Nemeck
(Kivits et al., 2018) — https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749117342562
(Allen et al., 2017) — https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-00923-8
(Nicole Allenden et al. 2022) — https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352550922001282