Why we must eat less meat to save the planet
I think about my friends, they always do barbecues. It would be hard. Everyone invites you to barbecues, you have to have meat. How will you barbecue without meat?
This was the response of a participant from São Paulo who took part in a focus group run by Glasgow University and Chatham House to explore public attitudes to reducing meat consumption to help prevent dangerous climate change. Focus groups were also run in the UK, US, and China, alongside a global online survey in 12 countries. Across the board, the finding was that people were largely unaware of the link between diet and climate, and that there were significant social barriers to eating less meat.
Brazil ranks considerably above the international average for environmental awareness – the public has a particularly good understanding of the issue of deforestation – it is part of people’s ‘lived experience’. However, the impact of meat and dairy production on climate change is not on the public agenda: as in other countries surveyed, there is a low level of public knowledge and a high degree of confusion.
The focus groups form part of a new report, published today, which urges governments to do more to raise public awareness of the importance of changing diets in order to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. The livestock sector accounts for 15 per cent of global emissions – as much the exhaust fumes from all forms of transport. And yet governments place very little emphasis on dietary change when talking about the solutions to climate change – afraid of the backlash if they tell people what to eat.
A striking finding of the report however, is that although many people are attached to the idea of eating meat, and wary of government intervention, especially on price, collectively, they actually want and expect guidance from political leaders and will not change their behaviour unless they get it. Many respondents, including in Brazil, said that if governments did introduce new policies to encourage a change in diet, the initial resistance would subside, as it did with other public health interventions, such as restrictions on smoking.
Global per capita meat consumption is already higher than recommended levels, and is set to rise by 76 per cent by 2050. This is unsustainable and threatens our health as well as the planet. In Brazil, most people – rich and poor - eat red meat every day. It accounts for around 11 per cent of total calorie intake for lower income groups, and around 13 per cent for higher income groups. On average, Brazilians eat two and a half times the amount deemed healthy by experts, who recommend people eat no more than 70g of red or processed meat a day - about the same as a small hamburger.
Overconsumption is associated with a growing non-communicable disease burden, obesity, and depletion of natural resources. Obesity in Brazil is growing at a rate of around 0.7 per cent annually, or one million newly obese people every year. In 11 - 12 years, levels of obesity are expected to match current levels in the US, where per capita meat consumption is more than three times the recommended amount.
See also: Why the traditional Chinese diet offers lessons to a warming world
The negative environmental effects of livestock production in Brazil are also significant. The clearing of forests for cattle ranching is a driver of deforestation and land degradation, while the use of arable land for animal feed, such as soy, is threatening biodiversity in the Amazon and savannah grasslands (cerrado). Intensive soy production requires significant inputs of land, water and energy. Waste and residue from livestock and crop production, and from processing in both industries, contaminates water supplies and emits nitrous oxide, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
The report’s important – if unpalatable - conclusion is that keeping climate change within safe limits will be impossible unless we reduce our meat consumption. This does not mean everyone becoming vegetarian; rather shifting to healthy diets with a high share of plant-based foods and very little processed food, broadly in line with the new Brazilian Dietary Guidelines published last year.
Current pledges submitted by countries ahead of the UN climate change conference in Paris put the world on track for a global temperature rise of at least 2.7 degrees by the end of this century, which would threaten the future of our species. Changing diets could generate a quarter of the emission reductions needed to close the emissions gap and keep warming below the dangerous threshold of 2 degrees.
Governments must break the cycle of inertia and encourage people to eat less meat. They will face significant challenges and will need to implement a range of policies to drive change. Campaigns alerting people to the health risks are likely to be more effective than those focused on the environment. But more interventionist policies such as advertising restrictions and a carbon tax on meat will also be needed: they will be unpopular but effective. Ultimately, the assumption that changing diets is too difficult is unjustified - and dangerous. Action can - and must - be taken.