Meat needs to be on the climate negotiating table

beef cuts aging
CC BY 2.0 Grant Hutchinson

Meat consumption has long taken a backseat in discussions about climate change, but the time has come for closer scrutiny of our collective eating habits.

People become vegetarians for many different reasons. Some are disturbed by the ethics of raising and killing animals for human consumption. Some do it for health reasons. Some find the taste and texture of meat to be unappetizing. Others do it to trim their grocery bill.

All of these reasons make sense to me, but they haven’t been enough to make me change my omnivore habits. Over the past few years, I’ve switched over to grass-fed meat that is usually packaged in paper and raised by local farmers whom I’ve met in person. It has felt like comfortable, solid middle ground for me, a tree-hugging environmentalist who sincerely wants to do everything in my power to lessen my footprint on this earth and live the greenest possible life while supporting local food production.

My conscience didn’t bother me until I watched a documentary called “Cowspiracy” (2014) a few weeks ago. It was so gripping and horrifying that I watched it twice. If what the movie claims is true, then it puts me – and anyone else who calls themselves an environmentalist – in a very awkward position.

“Cowspiracy” claims that animal agriculture (livestock and their byproducts) is responsible for 51 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, which is huge compared to 13 percent of emissions created by the entire transportation industry.

The film says that meat and dairy industries use one-third of the world’s fresh waster; produce 7 million pounds of excrement per minute in the United States alone; emit 150 billion gallons of methane daily; and are responsible for 91 percent of deforestation in the Amazon to date.

Most terrifying of all, even if we were to get rid of fossil fuels immediately, we would still exceed the 565-gigatonne limit of carbon dioxide by 2030, if we continue raising animals for human consumption on this scale.

The 51 percent is disputable. Different organizations come up with very different numbers, depending on how emissions are calculated. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggests that animal agriculture produces 18 percent of global emissions. The United States Environmental Protection Agency pegs it at 24 percent. The World Resources Institute says 13 percent.

These estimates are far from Cowspiracy’s 51 percent, but they still represent a hefty portion of emissions that merits serious scrutiny.

There is growing pressure on governments to take action to reduce meat consumption, since individuals are not changing their habits quickly enough. Demand for meat is only growing worldwide.

Quartz reports: “In a new report, researchers from UK policy institute Chatham House carried out surveys in 12 countries, and focus groups in Brazil, China, the UK, and the US, to gauge public opinion on the issue, and determined there’s an appetite for a meat tax, as well other government interventions, such as more vegetarian options in school cafeterias and cutting subsidies to livestock farmers.”

Meat has long remained off the policy agenda because governments fear backlash both from the public and from the extraordinarily strong meat lobby, especially in the United States. (See Cowspiracy for some frightening stories.) But, as Laura Wellesley writes for Chatham House, with the Paris climate conference coming up, it’s time put meat on the negotiating table.

“The political space is there. Public disengagement with the diet-climate relationship is not the result of active resistance; rather, it is the product of a lack of awareness that has been sustained through government inaction. Were governments to signal the urgent need for change and to initiate a public debate around the need for dietary change, this disengagement would likely dissipate.”

And yet, Quartz reports that only 21 of the 120 national plans submitted to the upcoming Paris conference are related to reducing livestock emissions. It remains to be seen what governments choose to do, but in the mean time it’s more important than ever for individuals to make changes in their own lives.

Watch "Cowspiracy" (while taking the statistics with a grain of salt), but hopefully its overarching message will speak to your mind and heart. Like it or not, reducing meat consumption is the closest thing to a magic bullet solution that one can find when it comes to climate change.

Meat needs to be on the climate negotiating table
Meat consumption has long taken a backseat in discussions about climate change, but the time has come for closer scrutiny of our collective eating habits.

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