Webinar: Do we need to stop eating meat and dairy to tackle climate change?
To mark a week-long series of articles looking at food and climate change, Carbon Brief hosted its latest webinar on Thursday and a video (above) of the recording is now available to watch on YouTube.
The topic for discussion was: “Do we need to stop eating meat and dairy to tackle climate change?”
Food and climate
This article is part of a week-long special series on how food production, consumption and waste are helping to drive climate change
Other articles in the series include guest posts on emissions from coronavirus-related food waste and future diets in low- and middle-income countries, as well as a piece compiling expert views on how diets will need to change to achieve international climate targets.
The webinar featured four panelists, whose collective expertise covers a range of topics relating to food and climate change.
He discussed the emissions arising from meat and dairy production – and how they compare to other food groups.
Dr Helen Harwatt is senior research fellow at Chatham House and food and climate policy fellow at Harvard Law School. At the end of last year she wrote a letter to Lancet Planetary Health calling for countries to set timeframes for “peak livestock” in order to meet the Paris Agreement targets.
She talked about the carbon sequestration benefits that can come from restoring native vegetation on agricultural land, following dietary shifts away from animal products. This was based on her recent study published in Nature Sustainability.
Dr Modi Mwatsama is a senior science lead for food systems, nutrition and health at the Wellcome Trust. She helped to secure the inclusion of sustainability considerations in the UK government’s Eatwell Guide and also appeared at the recent Climate Assembly.
She focused on the overconsumption of animal products, particularly in high-income nations, and the various adverse health impacts of these consumption patterns.
Dr Tara Garnett is a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. She founded the Food Climate Research Network in 2005, which later this year will be replaced by a new collaborative initiative called Table.
She addressed the numerous cultural and economic factors that impact people’s diets and considered how policymaking needs to take them into account.
Each panelist was invited to bring a slide to show when explaining their research, which can now be downloaded via Google Drive.
The event generated a lot of interest and more than 100 questions were submitted to the panel. Carbon Brief will pass some of the unanswered questions onto the panellists and post any responses to this page.
Many of the most popular questions, including queries concerning the relative merits of grass-fed and organic products, the government interventions required to change people’s diets and how to compare the emissions footprints of different food items, are also addressed by other articles in the food week series.
Carbon Brief hopes to host more webinars in the future. If you have suggestions for topics and panelists, please send them to [email protected].
Additional questions from the webinar
Dr Helen Harwatt
Food and climate policy fellow
Harvard Law School
Soeren T: “How much would your maximum potential results [from your Nature Sustainability paper] be impacted by different warming pathways e.g. above 2C or 3C?”
This is a really good question and will be an important addition to reforestation or rewilding scenario analyses. We didn’t model this as we were focusing on the options for staying below 2C, and to do this would require CO2 being removed from the atmosphere in addition to strong and rapid reductions of all greenhouse gases emitted on the ground.
But, if temperatures were to go beyond 2C then major forest zones such as the boreal and the Amazon rainforest might be at risk, according to a recent analysis. However, intact native forest covering a large area has more resilience to such threats, versus fragmented forest or plantation, and hence rewilding with this as a key requirement will be important. Essentially, we ideally want to restore native ecosystems’ functioning as fully as possible for them to have the best chance of coping with temperature rise.
John C: “Policy history seems to show that education and ‘nudges’ need to be accompanied by legislation to effectively ensure behaviour change, for example [to tackle] drink driving. So what would the panellists identify as an area where the government could legislate on diet?”
There are a number of potential options, and some might be more suited to certain situations compared to others. Generally, in a country like the UK, at the consumer level a tax on animal products to reflect their full cost, including the health and environmental costs, and labelling of products to enable consumers to make informed decisions, are areas where the government could legislate.
There are also policies that could influence the food environment, such as advertising rules, restrictions on how and where products are placed in a supermarket, and availability and access to healthy and sustainable plant-based foods across different socioeconomic groups.
Going back a step from the consumer level, institutional procurement and food policies such as targets for food related emissions and having a default vegetarian policy would be a good addition, to increase the availability of healthy and sustainable plant-based food options.
Going even further back in the food system to influence diet in more indirect ways, agricultural subsidy changes to incentivise the production of human-edible plants rather than farmed animals and their feed crops, setting a target for “peak livestock” production and tighter controls on farm waste such as manure, are areas where government could act.
There’s also a consistency issue in food policy making. Policies to shift UK consumer diets should be reflected in production policies, otherwise we could have a situation where we export, rather than consume, animal products but still have the environmental burdens of their production, including greenhouse gases.
Eleanor G: “How important is it that researchers, especially those involved in some way or another in climate change, ‘lead by example’ [specifically referencing the lack of vegan options in universities]?
There is definitely a gap in our understanding of the changes needed and what we actually have available to us. Food service in universities is a good example and there are plenty of possible reasons why menus don’t reflect the science on diet and climate change.
These include a lack of clarity from dietary guidelines, a lack of leadership or championing internally and lock-in with supplier contracts. Probably one of the biggest factors is that university kitchens are very busy places – I’ve been in a number of them and I can’t imagine there is much time available for incorporating the latest climate science into menu options.
There’s also the issue of training. Making tasty, plant-based dishes can be quite a different ask compared to dishes with animal products, which I think is generally due to the nature of traditional chef training in culinary schools. I’ve been able to experience first hand a number of plant-based culinary workshops in university kitchens and the results can be game changing, not just for menu options, but the chefs have a valuable experience too based on survey data I analysed.
So one thing anyone working or studying at a UK university can do is liaise with their dining hall and get in touch with the Forward Food culinary training program. The training sessions are free and they are also running them online. DefaultVeg is a good option to tie in with this – essentially having a commitment from the university or dining hall to make the main dish plant-based. Perhaps requiring a bigger commitment is signing up for a dining hall Veganuary challenge as a way to introduce plant-based dishes on a temporary basis initially. A number of universities and companies, including ITV and PwC, did the Veganuary workplace challenge in 2020 so there is experience to draw from.
Moving upstream from the dining hall, it might be possible to get involved with university-wide climate action plans. For example, currently in the UK universities have a mandatory greenhouse gas reduction target, but including food emissions is voluntary. Including food emissions in accounting frameworks would allow for reduction targets to be set and monitored, which would be a useful way to take a more system level approach to encouraging food policies/menu changes across campus in a sustained way.
Dr Modi Mwatsama
Senior science lead for food systems, nutrition and health
Lorenza C: “What would a sustainable utopian plate look like?”
Great question. I’m not sure there can be a single sustainable utopian plate – each country or region will have to develop their own plate to suit their local cultural contexts.
From a health perspective they will share similar characteristics in containing a variety of different food groups to ensure that nutrition needs are met, including fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts.
From a social and environmental perspective, the foods featured will depend on what foods are culturally acceptable and produced or available locally. A recent study of food-based dietary guidelines found that the EAT-Lancet planetary health reference diet is perhaps the example guideline that meets the most goals. This includes health as well as different planetary dimensions, such as water, greenhouse gas emissions and land-use. This would be a good starting point for countries and regions around the world to compare and revise their own guidelines to.
Andrew A: “Do the panellists have any ideas for how to tackle the stigma around vegetarian and vegan labelling of diets coming from sections of society with more traditional diets? Are there any labels out there for people who want to eat more sustainably?”
You raise an important issue on the stigma around vegetarian and vegan foods in some sections of society. Tackling stigma is really about changing culture, attitudes and values. This takes time and involves things like having role models and champions to support the issue, awareness raising campaigns, increasing availability and making it more mainstream. Some of this is starting to happen around vegetarian and vegan foods.
On your second question, there are different certification and labelling schemes which denote different aspects of sustainability in the broad sense, such as Fairtrade for social dimensions, Free Range for animal welfare, Organic for pesticides and artificial fertilisers and nutrition labels for health.
Several groups such as LEAP at the University of Oxford are working on environment labels that incorporate factors like water, greenhouse gases and land use. However, I’m not aware of a single integrated sustainable label which takes into consideration multiple dimensions. These might be challenging to produce but are much needed.
Steven J: “How will a transition to a mainly non-meat diet be funded and supported, for instance in the UK?”
This is a great question and implies that there will be costs involved in the transition. In terms of costs to consumers, low-meat diets should not be more expensive than meat-based ones because meat is generally a more expensive ingredient than, say, pulses (it takes much more time and energy to produce 1kg of beef compared to 1kg of chickpeas).
If true cost accounting was applied to food, this would ensure the costs paid by consumers and others reflect the wider externalities to society, such as impacts on health and the environment, and would likely support a shift towards plant-based diets.
The main cost implications will be for farmers and others whose livelihoods are dependent on meat. The livestock sector already receives the bulk of agriculture subsidies in most countries around the world. These could be reoriented away from supporting unsustainable meat production towards supporting more sustainable production practices and supporting transitioning and diversification to alternative livelihoods and income sources. For example, farmers could be paid to grow more diverse edible plants for human consumption or to look after the countryside and protect nature for the wider benefit of society.
It would be great if the money spent on supporting agriculture production, such as agriculture subsidies, and shaping consumer diets, such as food marketing budgets, was more closely aligned with the different food group proportions in sustainable dietary guidelines.
Dr Tara Garnett
Food Climate Research Network
Megan M: “What would be the future of land currently farmed for animal product production if this industry reduces dramatically?”
This is an impossible question to answer because it entirely depends on what policymakers choose to do, and they in turn will be influenced by the voting public and by lobbying organisations. Options include:
- Rewilding and ecological restoration
- Bioenergy production, carbon capture and storage (BECCS)
- Farming less intensively (so called “wildlife-friendly farming”) – which in practice means that for a given amount of food output, more land is needed. This includes less intensive crop and animal production.
- Some urban expansion
It is likely that all the above are going to happen. The challenge for policymakers is to think strategically about what are goals are for land and how to make decisions that best help secure our climate mitigation goals, conserve and restore biodiversity, and feed people nutritiously and equitably.
The “right” answer is going to depend on the local context. However, in a globalised, interconnected world, what happens at the local level, such as the decision to rewild versus the decision to continue producing food, will have knock-on effects in other countries.
Ian C: “Not all areas of our agricultural land use can grow crops, such as parts of the UK uplands. Is livestock production still the best use of this land on poor thin soils and high rainfall areas that grow grass so well presently?”
This links to the answer to my first question – there is no one right answer. Just because the uplands are no good for producing crops does not mean the only alternative is to rear sheep. There are environmental and biodiversity objectives to think about too, and this is where rewilding comes in.
In other parts, livestock may still have a role, and then there are composite approaches to think about, such as silvopasture. We need to experiment and be imaginative.
Sarah G: “What is the research on co-products such as wool and leather? I know it’s complicated but trying to get my head around the wider demand and supply chains, particularly as we move away from fossil-fuel based materials and toxic, intensive plant production such as cotton and the wider consequences on systems.”
Yes, it is complicated. I think the best thing I can do is point you to this report (pdf) where I try to get my head around these issues.
We certainly need to get away from chemical-intensive crop production, but it is also worth bearing in mind that the leather and wool you get from livestock production is itself indirectly connected to crop production via the feed grains that those animals eat.
A world in which fewer animals were farmed would open up more ecological space for less chemical-intensive crop production, so it is not actually an either-or situation here. See this blog post here on the need to get away from polarised thinking in debates about livestock.
Prof Pete Smith
Chair of plant and soil science
University of Aberdeen
Tom C: “Is there any controversy around current methods for measuring the impact of food production in CO2e? I’ve heard some say this method doesn’t account for the lifespan differences of different gases.”
Yes, there is. Some suggest that a new metric is used to better reflect the climate warming from methane, which is emitted by cattle, all animal manure and rice production. This is because it is short-lived, with an atmospheric lifetime of 12 years.
A new metric, called GWP* has been proposed. The upshot of using this metric is that methane emissions are accounted for by the rate of addition to the atmosphere rather than as a one-off pulse. Using this metric, keeping the same number of cattle does not increase climate warming – adding cattle increases warming and reducing the number of cattle reduces warming.
This has often been misrepresented as “we don’t need to worry about livestock methane emissions” – but this is not the case. To reduce warming, we still need to reduce methane emissions and therefore reduce cattle numbers. Indeed, since methane is short-lived, it could give us some quick wins in our collective efforts to stay below the Paris Agreement temperature targets.
Michael B: “What about eating chicken, fish and perhaps rabbit instead of red meat? What is the environmental impact of eating these?”
The climate change footprint of chicken, fish and rabbit is much lower than ruminants (cattle and sheep) as they do not have a rumen. They digest their food differently, so methane emissions are much lower.
Their emissions are, however, larger than plant-based foods. They also have indirect climate impacts from the food that they consume, as over 30% of all crops grown on the planet are fed to livestock, including aquaculture. So it is a step in the right direction, but not as good as a switch to plant-based foods.
Abbie B: “Are there also vegan products we should be avoiding, such as soya based products? How do these compare to meat products in terms of their impact?”
Climate-friendly doesn’t always mean environmentally friendly! If forests or peatlands are cleared to make way for crops, or if they are grown intensively using lots of fertiliser and pesticides, they can be very damaging.
But remember that 30% of all crops grown on the planet are fed to livestock, so we could farm less intensively to produce the food we need if we cured, or better managed, our addiction to meat and dairy. Overall, the land-use, water-use, air quality and water quality impacts are 10 to 100 times worse for ruminant meat than plant-based foods, but try to make sure the plant-based alternatives are sourced sustainably.
Florian P “The meat and dairy industry claim that they are not causing Amazon deforestation directly since the soy use to feed the animals is a byproduct of the soy oil used in many processed food. Is that correct?”
Not really. Lots of soy is grown for direct consumption by livestock, so that argument doesn’t really hold.
Maria L. F: “I have heard about life cycle assessments (LCAs) showing that CO2-negative beef is possible. However, a friend working with LCAs told me that these LCAs are faulty. Can you say something about this?”
Only with creative accounting of assumed soil carbon sequestration. These cases will be very rare if they occur at all.
Cristian H: “Could you explain the health profile of meat vs. plant-based foods? You made a comment that meat is ‘proportionately less nutritional than plant-based products’. What exactly is meant by this?”
For the amount of land, water used and greenhouse gases produced, we get far less product, calories and protein. So it is to do with the efficiency of producing the product that makes the per-unit impact for animal products so much poorer.
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