Climate change on the menu

A mother and her child enter an igloo as a member of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wears a chicken costume while holding a placard which reads "Meat melts the world. Harden your Resolve. Go Vegan" on a busy street sidewalk in Manila. (Jay Directo / AFP Photo)

When we think about winning the fight against climate change, most people concentrate on reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from cars, trucks, and other machines powered by fossil fuels. But while these emissions sources are certainly worthy of our attention, another culprit receives far less than it deserves: our food.

Farm and food sustainability are important pieces of the climate-change puzzle, but at the moment, climate-sustainable diets are not on the menu. In the developing world, some 821 million people currently suffer from hunger. Meanwhile, rich countries waste enough food every year to feed 750 million people.

Here is where the connection between food and climate change comes in: as people climb out of poverty – as many are – they demand more meat and dairy. This trend has grave implications for agriculture’s ecological footprint. Animals consume more food than they produce. Cows release large volumes of heat-trapping methane. And clearing land for pasture releases carbon dioxide at a staggering rate. If the beef and dairy industries were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only the United States (US) and China.

Fortunately, there is a solution: eat less meat and more fruit and vegetables. Reducing red meat consumption to twice per week would reduce global farmland by three-quarters – an area equivalent in size to the US, China, the European Union (EU), and Australia combined. Doing so would also make nutritional sense. At the moment, livestock farming uses about 80 percent of the planet’s farmland but produces just 18 percent of our calories. Worst of all, animal farming is a threat to our water supply; according to the Stockholm International Water Institute, the world could run out of fresh water by 2050 unless people reduce their consumption of animal products to just five percent of their daily calorie requirements.

Something must change, and fast; celebrities certainly understand this. Climate guru and former US Vice President Al Gore, who comes from a family of cattle ranchers, is now vegan, as is his former boss, US President Bill Clinton. Tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, pop singer Beyoncé, and many others are also reducing their meat consumption. Meanwhile, schools all over the world are adopting “Meat Free Mondays” to teach students about sustainability. Even McDonald’s has begun offering McVegan burgers in Scandinavia, apparently to rave reviews.

A recent study published by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN) found that official policies toward sustainable food and food waste are also changing. In 2016, for example, France became the first country in the world to prohibit grocery stores from wasting food. Italy has adopted a similar law. Apartment dwellers in Denmark, where Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen has put food waste on the political agenda, throw out 25 percent less food than they did five years ago.

The SU-Eatable Life project, a three-year European Commission (EC) initiative that I am leading in partnership with BCFN – aims to demonstrate that dietary changes can have a significant ecological effect. Data show that by eating less meat and wasting less food, European consumers could reduce water consumption by two million cubic meters and lower carbon dioxide emissions by about 5,300 tons every year.

So, what can each of us do to support these efforts? For starters, we should consume more vegetables and grains, which would be good for the planet’s health and our own. A 2017 French study found that vegetarians are often healthier than meat eaters because they eat a more varied diet and consume fewer calories.

We should eat according to the BCFN’s Double Food and Environmental Pyramid, which recommends foods that are high in nutritional value and less damaging to the environment; plant-based proteins are the best. In fact, in a world dominated by vegans, agricultural GHG emissions would be 70 percent lower than they are today. That would be a welcome mouthful indeed.

Riccardo Valentini, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Tuscia, won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.