Current consumption rates are driving poor health and environmental devastation; there's a lot to be gained by cutting back.
"What's for dinner?" is a question that most parents field mindlessly on a daily basis, but as Greenpeace points out in a new report, it's one of the most critical questions facing humanity right now:
The report, titled "Less is More: Reducing Meat and Dairy for a Healthier Life and Planet," sets an ambitious goal for reducing global meat and dairy consumption by 50 percent by the year 2050. Greenpeace says this is necessary if we hope to stay on track with the Paris Agreement and avoid dangerous climate change. If left unchecked, agriculture is projected to produce 52 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades, 70 percent of which will come from meat and dairy.
"The answer will determine what kind of future our children will have, and perhaps the destiny of our species and many of the animals, microbes and plants inhabiting planet Earth."
The authors of the report point out that there are multiple benefits to reducing meat and dairy.
1. It fights climate change.
Meat production is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and if we're trying to limit the planetary temperature increase to 1.5°C, we have to address the meat industry.
The call for a 50 percent reduction in consumption of animal products "will lead to a 64 percent reduction in greenhouse gases relative to a 2050 world that follows current trajectories. In absolute numbers that is approximately -7 billion tonnes of CO2e per year by 2050."
2. It means less deforestation.
Roughly a quarter of the Earth's land is used for animal grazing. This is a major driver of deforestation and the removal of natural savanna, grasslands, and native forests that can never be replaced in their original form.
"Removing natural forest, savanna and grasslands can irreversibly change entire ecosystems (including changes in species compositions) and affect global carbon cycling, hydrological cycles, local weather systems and other processes."
By eating less meat -- particularly beef, which requires 28 times more land to produce than dairy, pork, poultry, and eggs combined -- there is less incentive to clearcut forests to graze and grow feed for animals.
3. It protects endangered species.
When pastured animals and the vast mono-crops required to feed their confined counterparts take up so much space, it pushes local wild species out of the way. Many large herbivores are threatened by "competition for grazing space, water, a greater risk of disease transmission, and hybridization." Since 1970, the Earth has lost half of its wildlife but tripled its livestock population.
"Many of our most loved animals – elephants, lions, hippos, orangutans, foxes, wolves, bears, even spiders – would have a much better chance of thriving in a world where humans eat less meat and more plants produced in ecological ways."
4. It protects water sources.
Water is one of the world's most precious resources, and yet it is squandered when it comes to meat production. The runoff from excessive quantities of feces, particularly in the pork, poultry, and beef industries, together with the fertilizers used to grow feed crops, have resulted in more than 600 dead zones in the oceans and widespread eutrophication of coastal and freshwater regions.
Additionally, it takes an enormous amount of water to produce meat. It would be far more efficient to use this water to grow plants for consumption. From the report,
"Per gram of protein, the water footprint of beef is six times larger than for pulses. Some studies suggest that if industrialised countries moved towards a vegetarian diet, the food-related water footprint of humanity could be reduced by around 36 percent."
5. It makes us healthier humans.
Last but not least, Greenpeace argues that we'd be better off physically if we ate less meat. The report cites a number of studies linking consumption of animal products to cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and more. As other cultures such as India have proven for centuries, it is possible to thrive on a vegetarian diet -- or, at the very least, do perfectly well on considerably less meat than what's currently considered the norm. (Greenpeace estimates the global average to be 43 kg of meat annually and 90 kg of dairy, but keep in mind that's far higher in the U.S. and western Europe.) Eating less meat would also reduce exposure to foodborne illnesses and air pollution, and diminish the risk of antibiotic resistance.
We stand to gain far more than we'd lose by eating less meat and dairy. Greenpeace believes this can be achieved by pressuring governments to remove subsidies that support industrial animal agriculture and incentivizing those producers who do so ethically and locally on a small scale. Nor is the power of individual shoppers to be underestimated. As Greenpeace International's executive director Bunny McDiarmid said in a press release,
"What we decide to eat, as individuals and as a global society, is one of the most powerful tools we have in the fight against climate change and environmental destruction."
So, when my kids ask me what's for dinner tonight, I'll tell them, "We're having climate-saving, water-preserving, animal-protecting vegan chili!" And I'll show them this adorable video: