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Changing Diets to Fight Global Climate Change?

by UN Rep Ayuska Motha

We have all seen, heard, and read the scary data on the undeniable effects of global climate change and are feeling alarmed and powerless as we watch President Trump attempting to reverse all environmental progress we have been making. So, what can YOU specifically do to reduce your carbon footprint* and do your bit toward steering the planet in a more sustainable direction? One such solution was presented very clearly by the World Resources Institute (WRI) at one of the side events of the UNFCCC Conference in May 2017 entitled “What’s at Steak?”. By merely reducing our overall meat consumption, we can cut global Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) substantially.

As stated in the presentation, “If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitters” - right behind China and the USA. That’s correct - beef production results in high GHG emissions, more than other animal-based foods such as fish, poultry, eggs, pork and dairy and substantially more than all plant-based foods. In addition to the increased GHG emissions, animal-based food production is also much more resource-intensive, utilizing greater land areas for pastures and crops, as well as higher volumes of freshwater, compared with plant-based food production.

Did you also know that people are eating more protein than they actually need, especially in wealthy countries like the USA, Canada and the European Union? Despite the overconsumption of protein, the demand for beef is still growing rapidly and is projected to increase by 95% by 2050. WRI presented data on a number of options for shifting these high consumer diets to reduce their environmental impacts. Options ranged from switching from the average US diet to 1) a Mediterranean diet, 2) a diet replacing 1/3 of beef with pork and poultry, 3) a diet replacing 1/3 beef with legumes, 4) a diet reducing beef consumption by 70%, 5) a diet reducing all animal protein consumption by 50% as well as 6) a vegetarian diet. GHG emission reductions ranged from 11% with the Mediterranean diet all the way to 56% for the vegetarian option. Agricultural land use projections decreased by 11% to 48% with the presented shifts. As was apparent from the report, fairly minor shifts in beef and meat consumption can lead to fairly significant reductions in the GHG emissions and resources utilized. The audience were provided with the information to make informed consumer choices. An eye-opening statement was presented on one of the slides:

“If the world’s 2 billion high consumers cut their meat and dairy consumption by 40%, it would save an area of land twice the size of India, and avoid 168 billion tons of future GHG emissions (equivalent to 3X the global GHG emissions in 2009).”

Since women are often the household decision-makers, we wield enormous consumer power. So, just by replacing animal-based meals with more plant-based meals, you can be making minor daily changes towards curbing global climate change!

Reference: Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Culture (World Resources Institute) Part of a side event entitled “What’s at Steak? Land use, Livestock, Offsets and the Climate Regime.” Download pdf

*Carbon footprint refers to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are produced or caused by an individual, event, organization or product.

Read more: FAWCO's Environment Team published a bulletin with tips on consuming a more environmentally-friendly diet in May 2017. 

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