Meat and Dairy Are Heating Up the Planet, but Nobody Seems to Care

CC BY 2.0. USDA via The Atlantic

Despite the fact that livestock production contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector, there is an appalling unwillingness to change eating habits in order to make a difference.

If you're worried about climate change, look to the contents of your refrigerator. Meat and dairy may be bigger culprits than previously thought, and to deny their devastating impact on the planet is to deny climate change.

A new study has just been released by Chatham House in Great Britain and was designed to assess the global public opinion on meat and dairy consumption. What they found is revealed in the name of the study: “Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector.”

Researchers found that “recognition of the livestock sector as a significant contributor to climate change is markedly low.”

It is a forgotten sector largely because nobody wants to think about it. With seemingly unlimited access to products that once were considered special treats (i.e. individual Americans ate 7 pounds of cheese in 1970 but now eat 30 pounds per year on average), and easy accessibility to those products in every supermarket at inappropriately low prices, and the fact that meat and dairy products do taste delicious – to most people, at least – nobody wants to pay attention to the facts.

And yet, the facts remain horrifying to those who actually let them sink in. Greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector are estimated to account for 14.5 per cent of the global total, more than all emissions from the transport sector. Recent analyses have shown it is unlikely global temperature rises can be kept below two degrees Celsius without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption, but demand for meat and dairy from India and China is estimated to increase by 76 and 65 percent, respectively, by 2050, according to Chatham House.

In his summary of the report, James McWilliams gives more reasons why livestock is damaging:

“Livestock is the world’s single largest source of global methane and nitrous oxide emissions—emissions that are far more potent and enduring than carbon dioxide. Beef and dairy products deserve the lion’s share of the blame, accounting for 65 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions deriving from livestock—the emissions per unit of protein of beef are 150 times higher than that for soy... None of this even wades into the issue of water.”

McWilliams points out that even the grass-fed, pasture-raised ideals touted by food writers, locavores, and chefs don’t do anything to solve the problem. In fact, these production methods have a higher number of greenhouse gas emissions than the inhumane, intensive farming methods.

What should be a simple and straightforward solution to a very serious problem – “stop eating meat and dairy” – is made far more complicated by our societal attachment to foods as cultural traditions and our general sense of entitlement toward food. We residents of North American and Europe, in particular, assume we can eat anything we want, whenever we want it, irrespective of the staggering damage it may cause the planet.

That has to change.

Fortunately the Chatham Report found that people in developing countries such as Brazil, India, and China were far more concerned about the connection between meat, dairy, and climate change, once they were made aware of it, and indicated a greater willingness to change their eating habits. Ideally, North Americans will follow their example, although it seems unlikely.