A future of ‘exploration’, not ‘absence’
Can rich nations slash their meat intake if the discussion is reframed?
Imagine living in an era of non-stop disasters, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels. The air is thick with fumes from car and motorbike exhausts and you can feel the pollution in the back of your throat. The closest green space is too small/ not green enough/ too far.
Some may say we are already living in such a scenario, but humour me, will you?
Now, imagine living in an era where you can open your windows, breathe in fresh air and see greenery. Where the water is clean, news is not dominated by disasters, and you can enjoy nature for an hour, a weekend, or longer depending on your preference and not your budget.
I think I know which era most of us would rather be living in, and while the comparison may sound simplistic, these are the two broad visions of our future, depending on whether we can successfully rein in climate change, said Paul Behrens, author and associate professor of energy and environmental change at Netherlands’ Leiden University.
“If we do make these changes… then many people who are in really difficult situations right now could see a much better world. Cleaner air, cleaner water, more nature, being able to go to the surgeries, these sorts of things.”
With the last comment, Paul betrayed his British roots - he was referring to the long waiting list for hospital treatment in England. I’ve covered Paul’s work at least twice before on Thin Ink (see below).
I spoke to him again because he co-authored a new paper that came out this week in Nature Food. It continued the theme in “A Meaty Issue for 2022” but this time linked the biggest news of the year - Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its global reverberations - with dietary change in the EU and UK.
What did they find?
A shift to plant-based diets in these regions could boost resilience against global food shocks like the one we’re facing now as the amount of crops saved from reducing our intake of additive sugars and animal protein would compensate for almost all food exports from Ukraine and Russia.
It would also free up land area slightly larger than France and the UK combined. Using a small amount of this land to grow specific crops could replace total production of crops from Russia and Ukraine.
This is because 60% of crops grown in the EU and UK go towards animals, higher than the global average of 30% to 40%, said researchers from Leiden and China Agricultural University. The reason for this is two fold - European Union and the United Kingdom “consume more animal products per capita than the global average and have a strong export market in high-value animal products”.
In other words, this isn’t an issue of people going hungry if these crops aren’t grown.
A quick recap - Russia is the world’s top wheat exporter (18% of global shipments) and Ukraine is the sixth (10%). They are responsible for nearly 63% of global sunflower oil exports. Russia is also the top exporter of nitrogen (N) fertilisers and the second of potassium (K) fertilisers. More here.
This mean the panic - and the profiteering - we’d seen over fears of food shortage might also have been better contained and perhaps food prices may not have risen by as much.
These are pretty significant payoffs, but there will be other additional benefits too. We’d be able to save 4.1 billion cubic metres of freshwater per year (more than Belgium’s freshwater use in 2018), slash emissions of 0.2 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year (about half of UK’s 2020 emissions) and sequester 17.4 gigaton of carbon (about five times EU’s 2021 emissions).
Hence, the era of clean air, water and green spaces.
The responses to the crisis from policymakers have been lacklustre and full of short-termism. Take, for example, the European Commission’s March proposal of a €500 million package to help farmers struggling with high costs of inputs (energy, fertilisers, etc) or trade restrictions.
“The policy bolsters the European Union’s own meat-exporting industry, as 60% of imported Ukrainian–Russian crops are used to feed animals that are then exported to the rest of the world as high-value-added exports. If this support encourages the status quo, incentivises further production of animal products or drives cropland expansion, it may exacerbate environmental threats and public health concerns.”
To Paul, this is mind boggling.
“Policymakers are talking about inflation all the time, and (dietary shifts) are anti-inflation measures.”
“This inflation is coming about because we've been so slow in transitioning our energy and food systems. Because we didn't start properly 10 years ago. So it's a very clear connection, but policymakers just don’t seem to get that. It's like, “We'll do more gas. We'll do more of the same.””
What kind of plant-based diet?
This study used the EAT-Lancet diet, designed by 37 leading scientists from across the world, to feed 10 billion people without hurting the planet.
In more specific terms, it suggests people at at least 125 grams of dry beans, lentils, peas and other nuts or legumes per day and no more than 98 grams of red meat (pork, beef or lamb), 203 grams of poultry and 196 grams of fish per week.
Compare this to what consumers in the EU were eating in 2020. An average of nearly 1.6 kilograms of meat per week, according to Greenpeace.
Since its launch in 2019, the Eat-Lancet diet has come under criticism for being too expensive and not taking into account the needs of developing nations. Some say the cost is mainly because of our screwed up subsidies system which prioritises staples and productivity at the expense of human and planetary health.
Also, it seems part of this backlash was “a coordinated effort” by meat and dairy lobbies working with scientists and academics. Have a read of what Greenpeace UK’s Unearthed and The New York Times have discovered if you want to know more.
Paul said they used this diet as a benchmark because as far as he knows, “it’s still one of the largest, scientifically informed efforts to build what a healthy diet looks like without the influence of groups… to promote the consumption of various types of foods.”
Is the diet realistic?
“You don't really know what's realistic until you do the what ifs. What if we did this? What would that mean for us? And what's realistic at the moment is the current system not continuing the way it is,” said Paul.
So perhaps what we need is to reframe how we see and talk about this issue?
“We eat maybe a few tens of plant-based products in our lives. But there's about 100,000 out there, which we could really explore… It's a story of exploration, not a story of absence.”
Paul, as you may have guessed, is a vegetarian. But he didn’t start out as one. It was only seven years ago that he switched his eating habits and kept it up because he felt better physically and mentally.
But even a 20% reduction in meat intake could be enough to “replace most crops exported by Ukraine and Russia”, the paper said.
“If you're making an effort to cut down that's already a great start,” said Paul. “Even if you sort of still eat some animal products, it's going to be a really exciting time in terms of the different alternatives and flavours out there. Keep your mind open.”
Thing that made me go hmmm…
1. Unintended consequences
When talking about benefits, the report said Botswana, whose cattle are exported mainly to the EU and UK, will be able to sequester a huge amount of carbon. But aren’t they also going to be losing a significant sum of foreign exchange?
Paul acknowledged this is an issue and said there needs to be more work on upstream impacts and what can be done to help trading partners. He also made a great point about avoiding “path dependency” - how we get locked in to harmful practices based on historical reasons and why we keep doing bad things even when there are better alternatives.
2. What about the farmers?
Surely saving that much land means fewer farmers? To a certain extent, Paul said, but since farm holdings in the EU and UK tend to be much bigger than those in Africa or Asia, we are talking about a smaller proportion of farmers who will be affected.
There are alternatives too, by subsidising farmers for protecting biodiversity instead of for growing crops, and they are looking into farm employment for further research, he said.
“The key thing is farmers need to feel like they're not being trapped.”
The methane conundrum
While this study looked at dietary shifts primarily from the perspective of resilience, another report published this week underlined the need to cut meat intake from an emissions/climate change perspective.
I’ve written about livestock and methane emissions many times before, but it’s still worth highlighting findings from “Emissions Impossible: Methane Edition”.
The report, by IATP (Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy) and the Changing Markets Foundation, scrutinised 15 of the largest meat and diary corporations and concluded that:
Their combined methane emissions are roughly 12.8 million tonnes, equivalent to 83% of the EU’s entire methane footprint.
This represents around 3.4% of all global anthropogenic methane emissions and 11.1% of the world’s livestock-related methane.
Their overall greenhouse gas emissions, at 734 million tonnes of CO₂ equivalent, is more than those of Australia, Canada, the UK or France, and exceed those of oil and gas giants such as ExxonMobil, BP and Shell.
Methane footprint of Brazil’s JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, exceeds the combined livestock methane emissions of France, Germany, Canada and New Zealand
Methane footprint of U.S. multinational Tyson Foods is equivalent to Russia’s livestock sector.
Methane footprint of New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra is equivalent to Ireland’s livestock sector.
Nine out of 15 companies (60%) either do not report their GHG emissions or do not report their total supply chain emissions.
There is no evidence of methane reporting in companies’ most recent annual and sustainability reports.
In August, the researchers approached all 15 companies for information on total volumes and regional breakdown of their milk intake or slaughter data, including any GHG emission estimates for their operations for 2020 and 2021 but only four responded, Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director for Changing Markets, told me.
Why is this a problem?
“Methane is a short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas. If you look at its warming impact over 20 years, it is 80-times worse than CO₂. Methane emissions spiked last year and according to scientists they are on the trajectory to increase between 5-13% by 2030,” said Nusa.
As calls grew to cut these emissions so we have a viable path to stay below 1.5 degree temperature increase, the Global Methane Pledge was launched and adopted at COP26 in Glasgow last year.
“Although the Pledge is a step in the right direction, it falls short of what the science says is needed: it commits its signatories to only 30% reductions by 2030 from a 2020 baseline as opposed to the 40%–45% needed to prevent temperature overshoot,” said Nusa.
“Regulating the livestock industry’s methane footprint would critically help bridge that gap. Yet most of the 130 countries currently listed as participating in the Global Methane Pledge have not declared specific plans to deal with livestock methane.”
It is also much weaker in addressing agriculture compared to other key sectors, she added, pointing to how it commits signatories to achieve ‘all feasible reductions’ in the energy and waste sectors, but only mentions “vague commitments on technology innovation as well as incentives and partnerships with farmers”.
Changing Markets said the Pledge needs to become a binding international agreement, with a proper governance structure for monitoring, reporting, verification and financial support.
It also expressed disastisfaction with the outcomes of the Global Methane Pledge Ministerial at COP27 on Thursday (Nov 17) which it said relied more on “technical fixes and voluntary initiatives” rather than phasing out the sources of methane.
“The agriculture pathway is largely focused on improving the efficiency of livestock production which will not impact emissions if livestock numbers continue to grow,” three organisations including Changing Markets said in a statement.
Not a binary issue
I always add this line whenever I talk about livestock and methane. I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but it’s important to emphasise that we need to inject some nuance into the livestock debate, because:
Not every country/region/community has a good selection of plant-based proteins that could easily be substituted for meat, eggs and milk.
Please keep these points in mind whenever you feel the urge to see this issue in black and white. As an aside, lab-grown chicken from Upside Foods got the go-ahead from the U.S. authorities as safe to eat, the first such approval in the country.
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, on mastodon @ThinInk@journa.host, on my LinkedIn page or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.