With the human population now at 7.6 billion and heading for 9 or 10 billion by midcentury, a new report in the journal Nature asks, how are all these people going to eat?
Their conclusion: Any efforts to keep climate change at acceptable levels can’t be successful without a huge reduction in meat consumption. We’ve got to transform our food systems and radically change our dietary habits, and we’ve got to do it fast.
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Current methods of producing, distributing and consuming food are simply not environmentally sustainable. We’re damaging our planet and making it less hospitable for human existence.
The Washington Post summed it up this way: “Global warming has typically been linked to the burning of fossil fuels, but food production is a huge and underappreciated factor.”
An area equal to North and South America combined is already devoted to livestock or growing feed for animals. That’s half the earth’s ice-free land. And food demand is increasing fast. Factors like rising income in China mean higher demand for animal protein. The Nature report contends that, without big changes, pressures on environmental systems will increase 50-90 percent by 2050 compared with 2010.
One obvious strategy is to change what we eat. Researchers say meat production, which includes growing livestock and growing food specifically to feed livestock, is an inefficient way to feed people. Moreover, ruminants such as cows are huge producers of methane — a potent greenhouse gas. The report says greenhouse-gas emissions from global food systems could be cut significantly if people reduced meat consumption and followed a diet built around fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.
This information is not new. For years it has been reported that the emissions caused by the meat industry are a major cause of climate change. “The meat industry creates the same amount of greenhouses gases as all the vehicles in the world,” stated the Independent in 2015.
What’s different now is that this week’s Nature report comes on the heels of the October 8 IPCC report showing just how little time we have to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. We must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions immediately and even more dramatically than we previously thought, because to avoid the worst damage from climate change we must reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Now that we know that meat eating has roughly the same climate impact as driving a dirty gas guzzler, and that if unchecked damage to the environment will most likely thrust humanity into existential crisis by 2050, what will you do?