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  • 19th Sep 2019

The meat of the problem

Sustainable Diets - Blog 1 of 4

Reading this over your morning coffee? Perhaps you chose to have it with oat milk instead of dairy. Or maybe you’re reading the BIT blog over a quick lunch, where you opted for a meatless burger over its beefy counterpart. Now, perhaps more than ever, restaurants and supermarkets are catering to a range of alternative diets. Plant-based diets are in vogue, with supermarket Waitrose claiming that sales of vegan and vegetarian products have increased by 85% in the year to October 2018. Wider industry research also suggests that between 2013 and 2018, the number of products labelled ‘vegan’ has increased by about 250%. 

But why does this surge in plant-based food options matter? There are many reasons why people may choose to reduce (or eliminate) animal products from their diet. Aside from religious beliefs, two common motivations are concern for animal welfare and concern for one’s own health. A third motivation for choosing plant-based foods, and one that might be better placed to explain recent trends in this area, is concern for the environment.

While plants are lucky enough to get their energy directly from the sun, we animals have to rely on eating those plants or other animals. In ecology jargon, we are ‘consumers’ – and we certainly are good at consuming! We use the Earth’s resources 70% more quickly than they can be replenished, effectively using up our annual ecological budget by August each year. 

Our consumption of animal products intensifies this impact. Feeding crops to animals for human consumption is inefficient compared to people eating those crops directly, as land and resources are needed not only to grow the crops but also for the animals themselves. Producing a kilo of chicken requires 14 times as much water as does a kilo of tomatoes, cabbages or potatoes – and over 50 times as much for a kilo of beef. (We have written before about how water conservation is an issue even in Britain.)

Despite providing less than one fifth of our calories, livestock production uses about four fifths of the Earth’s agricultural land, and is the major cause of deforestation. Globally, an area the size of Panama (18 million acres) is lost to livestock production each year. With forest fires blazing in the Amazon as we write, in which deforestation for cattle ranching has played a likely role, the devastating ecological impact of animal agriculture is becoming all too apparent.

And that is without even considering the greenhouse gas emissions output of the animal agriculture production and supply chain, many stages of which, such as processing and refrigeration, are more energy-intensive for animal products than plant-based alternatives. Within the food system, cattle are outliers (along with other ruminants like sheep and goats), as they also produce methane as they digest. Beef provides just 1% of global calorie intake, but is responsible for 6% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, while an additional 3% are attributable to cow’s milk. Cattle are thus responsible for a full 9% of the world’s emissions; if they represented a country, they would be the third-largest emitter after the USA and China. These impacts do vary greatly across different farming techniques and regions, but at the global scale, we clearly cannot keep feeding the planet in this way, particularly as demand for food is growing. 

Plant-based burgers and oat milk lattes notwithstanding, global demand for meat has increased fivefold in the last 50 years, and shows little sign of abating. As the world’s population continues to grow and global consumption edges closer to Western levels, the UN estimates that we’re heading for a 74% increase in global demand for meat and a 58% increase in dairy, together contributing to an 80% increase in agricultural emissions. This would be catastrophic in itself, but is seemingly to be achieved while competition for land is increasing due to simultaneous increases in cereal production and other crops, as well as demand for living space, material and resource extraction for infrastructure and consumer goods, and greater competition for water.

The environmental cost of our agricultural system has recently, but quite rapidly, begun to enter mainstream debate. Since January this year alone, the EAT-Lancet Commission called for at least 50% less red meat to be consumed globally by 2050 to achieve ‘planetary health’, the Committee on Climate Change recommended a (relatively unambitious) 20% reduction in the UK’s beef and lamb consumption to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and just a month ago the IPCC special report on Climate Change and Land stated that we cannot expect to limit global temperature rise to 1.5O without major reform of the food system.

 It is a timely moment, then, to bring behavioural insights into the discussion about sustainable food, and we’re pleased to announce that we have a new report coming out on just this topic. We’re not claiming that a vegan diet is the only way to eat sustainably: in fact, smaller changes and easier substitutions (like swapping beef for chicken) is the more behaviourally-informed approach. As such, we think eating ‘less and better meat’ is an impactful and easy-to-follow rule of thumb. Nonetheless, there are many issues to consider, such as the acceptability of intervening in people’s diet choices in the first place. We’ll be giving some previews of our report on this blog over the next few weeks before the full publication in October. We hope you’ll join us!

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