It may come as a surprise to most people that the European Union (EU) has been openly discussing the potential benefits of reducing animal food consumption for nearly two decades. In fact, in 1998 they described reducing consumption as ‘arguably‘ the best way to address the environmental problems caused by animal food production [1]. As they explained: ‘Livestock do not degrade the environment – humans do.’ And yet, nearly twenty years later, that is exactly what we have been doing, at a staggering rate.

Cows by Farm in MountainsAs is now increasingly becoming common knowledge, the raising of animals for human consumption results in more greenhouse gas emissions than all global transportation [2]. In addition to accounting for at least 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gases, animal agriculture contributes to environmental degradation through water pollution and shortages, ocean dead zones, deforestation, species extinction, soil erosion and biodiversity losses.

In spite of the “impending doom” that is climate change – and seems to be becoming a more imminent reality by the day – and in spite of decades of research and knowledge, international and national governments continue to claim impotence in the face of rising consumption levels. The EU described this problem as a ‘policy void’ way back in 1998, but in 2013 discussion is still focused on just one thing: Changing production practices.

But, don’t worry, because according to the United Nations (UN), there is a ‘large potential’ to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the sector. In their best case scenario, the sector’s emissions could be reduced by 30 percent. But there’s a problem; as they also acknowledge, animal food consumption is expected to increase by 70 percent by 2050 (something they don’t account for). So, their ‘reduction’ would in fact be a 19 percent increase in greenhouse gases. And, as they also elude to, these emissions ‘reductions’ may come at a cost to other environmental factors and animal welfare, particularly through promoting the intensification of cow farming.

Greenhouse gases simply cannot be reduced in the short or even medium-term by focusing solely on production; we have to look at consumption. The most recent report by the Chatham House describes national and international governments as trapped in a ‘cycle of inertia’: governments fear the potential consequences of trying to affect consumption patterns; governments don’t act; people thus are unaware of the problem; so government doesn’t experience pressure to act; and so on[3].

A multi-staged approach is needed:

  1. Raise public awareness of the problem and, in doing so, identify connections between personal, corporate and community behaviour and environmental impacts. Meanwhile, remove governmental subsidies supporting animal agriculture, incorporate the industry into existing environmental regulations and policies and provide support for research and development into alternative foods and strategies for reducing consumption.
  2. Implement policies to reduce the harms incurred by agriculture: ‘nudging’ behaviour in a way similar to what has been done with tobacco (i.e. labelling, positioning of products in stores and requiring the availability of plant-based food alternatives.
  3. Implement stricter policies that use financial incentives to promote consumption changes.

[1] (Steinfeld, de Haan and Blackburn)

[2] (Gerber et al. 2013)

[3] (Wellesley, Happer and Froggatt 2015)

Resources:

Gerber, et al. (2013). Tackling Climate Change through Livestock — A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Steinfeld, H., de Haan, C. and Blackburn, H. (1998). Livestock-Environment Interactions: Issues and Options. [Online]. Suffolk, UK:.

Wellesley, L., Happer, C. and Froggatt, A. (2015). Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption. Chatham House Report. Great Britain: City Print.

2 thoughts on “Something Needs to Change

  1. Increased my knowledge about this growing environmental problem by 100%! Thanks for doing this. I look forward to learning more. Have any countries taken on policy changes as a result of the consequences which will be inevitable?

    Like

    1. Thanks Felicia for reading and taking the time to reply. 🙂 The most frustrated component of my research is the general knowledge that NOT doing something isn’t enough — the science is clear! Yet, the focus remains almost exclusively on changing production practices.

      Sweden is by far winning in terms of actually trying to do something, including their dietary guidelines accounting for sustainability and thus recommending minimal consumption of meat and dairy. They also have eco-labelling for food and are considering introducing taxes on meat and environmentally-destructive foods.

      Other countries have started accounting for sustainability in terms of dietary guidelines, including the US just this past year (finally!) and eco-labelling is being considered by the EU, UK and other countries.

      However, most progress is happening ‘on the ground’ through non-profits like the Food Climate Research Network, Compassion in World Farming, etc.

      If you’re interested, may I recommend two excellent documentaries that discuss the environment and animal agriculture in a very compelling way and really inspired me: Cowspiracy (on Netflix!) and Sea the Truth (free on Youtube!)

      Like

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