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Can dietary shifts benefit both farmers and climate?
A new study suggests it will ultimately increase farm incomes in Europe but trade-offs need to be carefully monitored
For a long time, any suggestion that consumers in rich countries should eat less meat to rein in climate change and rising rates of diet-related health problems has been seen as an attack on farming.
The argument is that it will impoverish farmers, whether they are rearing livestock or growing crops that go into feeding said livestock. Amid all the furor over about how promoting plant-based diets is “anti-farming”, “anti-livestock”, and “anti-freedom”, the idea that dietary shifts may save the environment but doom the farmers took hold.
Well, a new study by German researchers published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Agricultural Economics suggests that the well-being of our planet and our food producers aren’t mutually exclusive.
In fact, the paper, which the authors say is “the first attempt to analyse the implications of a large shift towards healthier and sustainable diets on agricultural markets and the income of farms” show we can both save the environment and the farmers. (emphasis mine)
The authors looked at what would happen to the agricultural sector if European consumers shift towards the EAT-Lancet diet, a “plant-forward diet” which recommends people to double their intake of nuts, fruit, vegetables and legumes, and eat half as much meat and sugar.
If you’re a carnivore reading the above list and going, “Well, that sounds difficult,” don’t worry. The researchers have taken that into account.
“Dietary habits usually change slowly. So, we considered a 10% (low) and a 30% (high) approximation of (EAT-Lancet diet) until 2030. The 100% approximation (a really huge shift in diets) was only taken into consideration in the long-run scenario for 2050,” co-author Florian Freund from the Thünen Institute for Market Analysis told me.
What did they find?
That shifts to healthier diets will lead to a rise in European farm income across all scenarios and in both short- and long-term.
The gains are less dramatic for the 2030 timeline: 0.3% and 5.4% depending on whether the shift was minimal or substantial.
But in the long run (2050), the income boost is significant: by 9.7% on a 10% shift, by 36% on a 30% shift and by a whopping 71% if we all follow the Eat-Lancet diets.
I’m an optimist but also realistic, so I find comfort in that even on a partial shift, farmers are going to benefit.
Now, there are variations by sector and country.
In Germany, which is highly specialised in animal-based products, “in the short run, there will be income losses even for small dietary changes,” said Florian. But these losses will disappear by 2050.
This is because there is less flexibility for production systems to change in a shorter time period, he said.
Here’s a twitter thread from Florian about the paper which sparked some interesting follow-up questions.
This paper piqued my interest because I’ve seen studies on the implications of dietary changes for the environment and for human health, but not one that looked at the agricultural sector.
In fact, below are two previous studies I wrote about in the past year alone that looked at the benefits.
This issue covered a paper that said a carbon “double dividend” - lower emissions + more land to capture carbon - is within reach if 54 rich countries switch to the EAT-Lancet diet.
This one is on a study that found dietary changes in the EU and UK would compensate for almost all food exports from Ukraine and Russia because of reduced consumption of additive sugars and animal protein.
A hot issue
As we all know, the whole meat vs. plant issue is very controversial, particularly as the topic has been hijacked by folks who snarl at the idea of saving our lives and planet as “being woke” and defend their god-given right to eat as many burgers as possible.
Fuelling these flames are conglomerates with very deep pockets who can fund prominent researchers and academics to shill for them. This expose in the New York Times and this entry from Marion Nestle’s blog Food Politics are just three of the most recent examples.
A debate on meat consumption is long overdue because the consumption levels in rich countries are just not sustainable. Just read the stats below from the latest German study.
“Globally, approximately 43 kg of meat and 88 kg of milk are consumed per capita per year. In Europe, these figures are twice as high, with 78 kg of meat and 216 kg of milk per capita per year.”
“As a result, Europeans consume an average of almost 800 kcal per day from animal-based foods, which is well above nutritional recommendations and an estimated healthy and sustainable amount of 300 kcal per day.”
I’ve always called for more nuance in the debate around livestock because the consumption levels are so different across the world that it doesn’t make sense to take the same approach everywhere.
I also happen to come from a poor country where a significant number of women are anaemic, partly because their diets are neither diverse nor healthy, and this can have significant, long-term repercussions not only on themselves but also their children. And no, they don’t have access to a variety of dark green vegetables that they can swap for meat.
Is it the cow? Or is it the how?
But there are others, like the European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC), the European chapter of the world’s largest farm movement La Via Campesina, who are upset at the vilification beef farmers are facing.
“It’s not the cow, it’s the how” is their argument, similar to many others who believe livestock has a role to play in climate action.
ECVC recently released a position paper which said small-scale, peasant livestock farming is not the main cause of emissions and that pastoralism has a role to play in climate mitigation.
It acknowledged that the livestock sector is responsible for an overwhelming amount of total agricultural emissions - up to 86% - in Europe, mainly due to ruminant burps, manure management from all types of livestock, and production, transport, and processing of feed. But the vast majority comes from “intensive industrialised livestock farming, detached from the land”, it said.
A few more excerpts -
“Action should thus be focused on livestock farming practices that depend on fossil fuels. It is more efficient to reduce carbon dioxide than to reduce methane. In Spain, for example, more than 50% of the greenhouse gas footprint of livestock farming is attributed to CO2 emissions from energy used on the livestock farm itself, energy needed to produce or transport inputs (feed, fertiliser) or energy needed for changes in land use.”
“Industrial models must be called into question and a process of de-intensification needs to be organised. Small- and medium-scale livestock farming models that have resisted the push towards industrialisation and maintained practices that are good for the social, food and economic fabric, for animals and the environment, must be supported and safeguarded.”
Florian, however, said in order to reduce GHG emissions, it is much more relevant to look at what is produced rather than how it is produced, pointing to a 2018 paper which looked at the environmental costs of producing foods in nearly 39,000 farms.
“In terms of health it is also more important what type of foods you eat rather how it was produced,” he added.
Personally, I’m encouraged by the findings of the latest study, but I also notice there could be negative trade offs that we should be careful about and planned for.
The big issue for me is that consumers will likely have to pay more for food.
This increase could be between 2.8% and 9.4% in 2030 and between 2.6% and 12.5% in 2050 in the 10% and 30% shift scenarios. If the EAT-Lancet diet suggestions are fully implemented, “expenditure… rises by 29% in 2050, mainly driven by the high consumer prices for vegetables and fruits”.
This is a big worry for me, considering that healthy diets are already out of reach for so many consumers today including in the EU.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t shift though, because there’s no guarantee prices won’t rise if we stick to the current diets. Also, there are things that can be done to alleviate the higher costs.
One way is to repurpose the multi-billion annual farming subsidies that go to measures that distort prices and are harmful for the environment and human health.
Florian also shared his personal opinion that abolishing or reducing VAT for fruits and vegetables could go a long way.
His next project is to study how dietary changes will affect the agricultural sector in Germany. They are also looking at impacts of such shifts on Denmark (known for its pigs and bacon) and Ireland (a major beef exporter).
Three Good Reads
The future of wild rice may depend on an unlikely alliance - FERN
This uplifting piece by Nancy Averett looked at how the Ojibwe tribe in Northern Wisconsin partnered with a scientist from the University of Minnesota, which had a history of mistreating and exploiting the tribe, to save a scared plant.
China: What the world’s largest food system means for climate change - Carbon Brief
This guest post from two researchers at Columbia is a fascinating insight into the world’s largest consumer and producer of food.
How drought-resistant livestock can help farmers fight climate change - Devex
I thought the piece by Teresa Welsh was appropriate considering this week’s topic. The story is centred in the Horn of Africa and why I’m constantly harping on about the need for nuance in our livestock debate.