What is one thing most of us can’t resist? Food!
Who doesn’t love spaghetti carbonara, a loaded burger, and fresh sushi? Well, new research by the UN suggests that we really need to think about what we eat. Our seemingly inconsequential dinner choices have a far larger impact on the environment than we think: Worldwide food production is responsible for 1/5th of global greenhouse gas emissions. The same fraction of the total emissions from worldwide transportation – cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships! That’s a big deal…
Food: subsistence or status? In many societies, meat consumption is a status symbol, or a sign of how prosperous you are. A steady pattern has been observed all over the world — as income increases, people consume more meat. For example, meat consumption has increased by 135% in rural China as 500 million people have been pulled out of extreme poverty. In India and Brazil, the rising middle class has increased the demand for meat from 34% to 44%. In the USA, the popular ‘carnivore culture’ is often evoked to demonstrate the country’s prosperity. As you can see, wealth equals more meat consumption!
Is current demand sustainable? No way! As demand increases, we need more farms to produce meat. Consider these frightening facts:
- Forests are cut down and stored carbon dioxide is released into the environment.
- Natural habitats are lost forever, and biodiversity reduces.
- Fertilizers used on crops release the pollutant nitrous oxide when they break down.
- Animals like cows, sheep, and goats are ruminants, which means they burp out the pollutant gas methane.
- Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide!
- It takes approximately 1 billion grains of feed to sustain worldwide livestock.
- Livestock requires 4000-8000kgs of water to be produced.
- 20 billion chickens and 100 million cows are farmed annually.
Our food system clearly needs to change!
The collective or the individual? Dr. Catherine Happer at the University of Glasgow decided to investigate the public debate on climate change. She asked over 1000 people in 12 countries if they knew about the link between food consumption and climate change. Very few did. When she told about the direct link between the two, people were shell-shocked. She decided to take the study further. In Brazil, China, the UK, and the USA, she asked people if they were likely to change their eating patterns to prevent climate change. The majority answered they weren’t. She then explained the various health risks of consuming too much meat to her sample of people — kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some kinds of cancer. Would the people in her sample change their eating habits after learning these facts? Absolutely!
What can the world do? People all around the world are doing amazing things to enable humans to eat healthier for themselves (which is what people tend to do, according to Dr. Happer’s study) and the environment. You can research Pat Brown’s Impossible Burger, and the increasingly popular ‘carbon tax’ being considered by countries to raise awareness about climate change. Remember that consumers like you and me have the power to change the food production landscape by what we buy and consume. Efforts like reducing your meat intake to 2-3 times a week, reducing your portion size of meat, and carefully considering which foods you are getting your protein from can go a long way!
Of course, as any nutritionist will tell you, a balanced diet is very important for your health. There are definite benefits to eating meat as well. Here’s something to help you see what alternatives you can choose if you decide you would like to explore a bit of a change:
Written and illustrated by Rya Sara Jetha. Rya lives in Mumbai, India with her family. She enjoys writing, playing the piano, running and baking.