Eating our way to global warming?

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Food is necessary for human survival; this is a truth which is universally acknowledged. However, agricultural food production and land use have recently been proven as significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. According to the latest figures from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a conglomerate of 15 worldwide research centres, the global food system is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions. The UK Committee on Climate Change set a target to reduce UK emissions in 1990 by 80% by 2050, which would require a 50% reduction by 2030; a seemingly unlikely target with the global demand for animal source foods projected to increase substantially within the next 30 years. The dilemma which this presents us with is that of satisfying our immediate needs of nutrition against the long-term preservation of the environment we live in.

Clearly strategies need to be implemented to counter such damning statistics. A combination of agricultural technological innovations and reduction in the production of foods from animal sources could present an effective contribution to meeting the national and global targets necessary in reducing emissions. However, proposed technological strategies within the agricultural sector ranging from improvements in the efficiency of farming techniques, to prevention of carbon loss through a stricter management of land use and an increased dependence on alternative fuel sources, are vital but not sufficient to reduce emissions by the recommended amount. What could be argued is the most necessary change is the human attitude to consumption of animal sourced product. It all boils down to the age-old adage of demand and supply; if less variety and quantity becomes available, surely less product will be consumed and less production necessitated?

In order for the consumption of animal goods to decrease, the way in which we eat and our attitudes towards diet would need to be radically altered. However, such a uniform implementation of a diet reduced in meat and dairy products would raise nutritional obstacles and indeed prove near impossible to implement. Theoretically, a diet with minimal animal foods can bring health benefits, for example, a reduction in meat would directly correlate with a reduction in quantities of saturated fats within a diet and thus a resultant decrease in the likelihood of heart disease and blood pressure. However, this is highly dependent on the context of the individual and societal habits. In developed economies, arguably, a reduction in consumption of animal source foods can lead to health benefits. Conversely, in lesser economically developed countries where access to varied food types is limited and there may be subsequent problems of malnutrition, animal source foods can make a critical difference to the nutritional value of the family diet. This is without the consideration of the extensive livelihood which the farming industries bring to some of the world’s poorest citizens and communities.

Thus alongside technical innovation, a context specific approach to a reduction of animal sourced food consumption is required. Decision makers must situate livestock farming within a policy framework which integrates agricultural, environmental and nutritional goals to ensure that the most vulnerable communities will not suffer at the excesses of others.

Photo credit: Eric Rogers

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