For years, meat production and consumption have been identified as potential hazards when it comes to climate change efforts. However, a new study from international researchers suggests being more careful of how meat is processed and prepared is mandatory to reduce how it impacts the environment.
University of Oxford researchers produced a comprehensive analysis of food systems and how they impact the global environment. According to their findings, beef consumption needs to fall up to 90 percent in western countries. The research also suggested radical changes in farming practices are needed to avoid exhausting the earth's resources.
Without acting on these issues, the team suggested far more death, disease, famine, and drought will come our way by 2050 when the population is estimated to rise by 2.3 billion people.
How farming and food production impacts the environment
According to the latest research, there are only a dozen years to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius of change before it rises sharply. And while there are a number of factors at play, the mass production of food plays a substantial role in resource loss.
“No single solution is enough to avoid crossing planetary boundaries. But when the solutions are implemented together, our research indicates that it may be possible to feed the growing population sustainably,” said Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford. Springmann led the study.
Westernized countries contribute exceptionally high levels of pollution as a subset of meat consuption. There are entire infrastructures dedicated to the beef, pork and chicken industries, with small co-ops and family farms being overshadowed by massive meat conglomerates.
“It is pretty shocking,” said Springmann in an interview with The Guardian. “We are really risking the sustainability of the whole system. If we are interested in people being able to farm and eat, then we better not do that.”
Roughly a third of the food produced today never reaches the table, as it goes toward feeding livestock. That's a third of resources -- water, land, energy -- being spent on producing food that could help feed humans but instead gets expended by more and more animals.
Looking for solutions
No one simple fix exists to the strain caused by growing more food for a rising population. However, the researchers optimistically predict it can be done.
“Feeding a world population of 10 billion is possible, but only if we change the way we eat and the way we produce food,” said Prof Johan Rockström at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who was part of the research team. “Greening the food sector or eating up our planet: this is what is on the menu today.”
"Greening the food sector" comes in a lot of forms. It means finding 'greener' alternatives to technologies used in growing and harvesting crops. It includes developing new ways to produce food that doesn't involve a lot of land for produce.
It also means the population should get more adjusted to eating less meat in general. The solution proposed by the researchers is called "flexitarian dieting." On average, the world would have to eat 75 percent less beef, 90 percent less pork, half the number of eggs to keep climate change below 2 degrees Celsius.
In addition to cutting out these high-resource foods, the researchers encourage replacing those items with triple their current consumption of beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. The Oxford team estimates it would halve emissions from livestock, and using livestock manure would further provide for this crop growth.
While the task may sound daunting, the researchers explained the issue is far worse if no action is taken at all.
“Without concerted action, we found that the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50-90% by 2050 as a result of population growth and the rise of diets high in fats, sugars and meat. In that case, all planetary boundaries related to food production would be surpassed, some of them by more than twofold," Springmann explained.
And despite some countries needing to cut back on meat products more than others, Springmann emphasized the issue is a global one.
“I think we can do it, but we really need much more proactive governments to provide the right framework," he said. "People can make a personal difference by changing their diet, but also by knocking on the doors of their politicians and saying we need better environmental regulations – that is also very important. Do not let politicians off the hook.”