Eating less meat is crucial to climate fight, but politically tricky

organic meat
CC BY 2.0 Spicy Bear

From meat rationing to weekday vegetarianism, we've seen plenty of ideas for reducing meat consumption.

And for good reason.

Animal food products, and in particular beef and dairy, have a major impact on climate change. Now a new report on the climate impact of animal farming from UK-based Chatham House suggests that unless we tackle the growing demand for livestock, we will have no chance of holding climate change within acceptable limits, even if we rapidly decarbonize other key sectors like energy and transportation.

The trouble, however, is that governments have been notoriously cautious about meddling in what we eat. At least, that's what the report's authors told The Guardian:

“Preventing catastrophic warming is dependent on tackling meat and dairy consumption, but the world is doing very little,” said Rob Bailey, the report’s lead author. “A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector. There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat.”

There is, of course, some truth to this notion. Governments would be brave indeed to institute a meat tax, and the populist backlash against locavore celebrities ranging from Michelle Obama to Jamie Oliver, would suggest that politicians peddling a "low carbon diet" may indeed face accusations of pushing a nanny state.

Let's not forget, however, that the government is already meddling in what we eat.

Government subsidies around the world have created massive distortions in the price of dairy and meat, leading to artificially high demand and the negative health consequences that go with it. Before we start marching for meat rationing and a tax on bacon, let's first work on leveling the playing field, removing unnecessary agricultural subsidies and returning to a more balanced, less-resource intensive diet.

The good news, at least for us occasional meat eaters, is that we don't need to be abandoning animal products entirely. The Chatham House report suggests that simply shifting consumption patterns to eating what most dietitians recommend anyway—namely eating sensible amounts of meat as part of a balanced, plant-heavy diet—would shift our dietary patterns back toward environmental equilibrium.

In other good news, the report also suggests that awareness and willingness to restrict meat intake was higher in countries like China, India and Brazil—nations where the largest rise in meat consumption has been predicted for coming years.

Eating less meat is crucial to climate fight, but politically tricky
A new report finds reducing meat consumption is as important as tackling transportation emissions, but the politics are daunting.

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