Meat has earned a bad reputation as an environmentally damaging food, in part because beef production is known to emit 20 times more greenhouse gases than bean production for the same protein benefit.
But is meat getting too much of the blame?
A Japan-based study, widely regarded as reflective of most wealthy nations, found that the consumption of sweets, alcohol and restaurant food adds to families’ carbon footprints in a larger capacity than other food and drink choices.
The findings, say the researchers, warn against applying one-size-fits-all policies to change the consumption behaviors that are most accelerating man-made climate change.
The researchers, based at the U.K.’s University of Sheffield and the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto, Japan, analyzed the carbon footprints of the diets of 60,000 households across Japan’s 47 regions. They found that meat consumption was relatively constant per household but carbon footprints were not. Eating out was found to contribute on average 770 kilograms of greenhouse gases per year for those households with a higher footprint, whereas meat contributed just 280 kilograms.
The study published in the journal One Earth showed that meat consumption could explain less than 10% of the difference seen in carbon footprints between Japanese families. Instead, households with higher carbon footprints tended to consume more food from restaurants, as well as more vegetables and fish. However, it was the level of consumption of sweets and alcohol – two to three times higher than families with low carbon footprints – that really stood out.
“If we are serious about reducing our carbon footprints, then our diets must change,” said study author and associate professor Keiichiro Kanemoto at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto. “If we think of a carbon tax, it might be wiser to target sweets and alcohol if we want a progressive system… to target less-nutritious foods that are excessively consumed in some populations.”
Kanemoto does, however, recommend eating less meat to reduce a household’s environmental impact overall. “Meat is a high-carbon-footprint food. Replacing red meat consumption with white meat and vegetables will lower a family’s carbon footprint,” he said.
The study’s focus on Japan is significant for habits in most industrial countries. Its population is one of the oldest in the world, a trend that many wealthy countries are following. The Japanese also have a relatively healthy diet, which is frequently attributed to them having the world’s longest life span by country.
“Due to wealth, culture and farming practices, different regions in a country consume food differently,” said study co-author Dr. Christian Reynolds of the Institute of Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield. “This evidence from Japan demonstrates that research can help us to identify what to focus on. The same patterns of dietary change in terms of sugar, alcohol and dining out need to be considered in the U.K., Australia, the U.S. and Europe.”
For certain, high-meat diets have been the target of climate-change research.
In an early-December letter published in The Lancet Planetary Health Journal, a group of 50 scientists said that all but the poorest countries, where accessing protein for survival outweighs being selective about the source, should set a time frame for livestock production to stop expanding. If the meat and dairy sector were to continue on its present trajectory, it would account for almost half of the emissions that the researchers expect between now and 2030.
To limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C, the global annual emission reduction needed is 7.6% every year between 2020 and 2030, according to the voluntary pledge laid out in the Paris climate agreement.
While meat is a favorite target of those hoping for a change in farming and consumption, vegetarians aren’t entirely blameless when it comes to climate impact. That’s because if vegetarians eat cheese or dairy products their demand for livestock, particularly the stress on Earth from feeding livestock, rises.
Findings from scientists at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health found that diets in which meat, fish or dairy products were consumed only once a day have a smaller negative impact on emissions and water supplies than exclusively vegetarian diets of three meals a day, including milk and eggs, in 95% of countries analyzed.
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