Meat-heavy diets have been under increased scrutiny of late, spawning a host of research and campaigns linking them to the accelerating impacts of climate change around the world.
Now, a new report from the Changing Markets Foundation, Mighty Earth and Compassion in World Farming points the finger at governments, which they say are failing to tackle meat over-consumption to meet climate targets.
In many EU countries and in the US, meat consumption is more than double the recommended levels for healthy diets. Growing the Good: The Case for Low-carbon Transition in the Food Sector highlights government policies that universally support unsustainable agricultural production systems dominated by intensive meat and dairy farmers and producers.
In contrast, the report highlights positive market trends, notably the growth of plant-based foods and groundbreaking innovation in meat alternatives by companies including Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Max Burgers. The number of vegans and vegetarians is also growing rapidly and many more people, particularly among younger generations, are reducing their meat intake. Instead of fueling such societal trends, the report contends politicians are succumbing to pressure from meat producers by introducing new legislative measures aiming to restrict market growth for alternatives, such as the recent French ban on terms like “vegan burger.”
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“The lack of public policies in this sector is alarming. If meat and dairy consumption increases as forecast, there will be almost no room within the total allowable global emissions budget for any sectors other than agriculture by 2050,” said Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director at the Changing Markets Foundation. “The window of opportunity to address climate change is closing, while its consequences are already being felt. This year’s droughts resulted in food price increases and even more public subsidies to this polluting sector — mostly to finance feed imports. Unsustainable bail-outs should end, and governments should instead finance the transition towards a low emissions food system with more environmentally friendly farming methods and healthier diets for all.”
Animal agriculture is today responsible for around 16.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, equivalent to the emissions from combustion of all transport fuels. The sector is also responsible for a third of potent methane and nitrous oxide emission. A managed reduction in demand for meat and dairy could increase humanity’s chances to stay below 1.5°C temperature increase and avoid climate the ‘cliff edge’ as highlighted by the last week’s IPCC report.
Low-carbon transition in the food sector is also crucial to reduce the pressure on land. Currently, 70-80 percent of agricultural land is dedicated to animal agriculture, either directly for grazing or to grow increasing quantities of feed. Reducing the number of animals is key to put this land to use for reforestation, climate sequestration and also to more sustainable farming methods.
Bérénice Dupeux, Policy Officer for Agriculture at the European Environmental Bureau, said: “This report is yet more evidence that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, the agriculture sector needs to significantly reduce meat and dairy production to reduce overall emissions – just as many other industries are doing. The number of extreme climate events is increasing. As this summer’s droughts showed us, we cannot afford to pour money into continuing the type of agriculture that is exacerbating climate change and leave environmental ambition to good will. Given the immense scale of the problem, our political leaders cannot turn a blind eye on climate change and they must address it within the current reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Farm ministers and MEPs have a moral obligation to put the rights of future generations first.”
The Changing Markets Foundation has drafted a series of recommendations to governments around the world to ensure that food production plays its part in the low-carbon transition:
- Updating climate targets to include the mitigation potential of animal agriculture and to reflect the 1.5-degree temperature increase pathway.
- Updating fiscal policies to reduce meat demand and consumption. So-called meat taxes have been recommended by several reputable institutions, as tax on goods deemed to be unhealthy and/or damaging to the environment.
- Establishing implementation strategies for dietary guidelines for the shift to healthier diets including the reduction of animal products.
- Shifting subsidies away from animal farms and addressing negative externalities of animal agriculture, such as pollution.
- Incentivising the production of diverse and underused protein crops, such as pulses, for human consumption.
- Funding the research and development of plant-based and other meat alternatives, such as clean meat.
On a lighter and somewhat non sequitur note, three members of the Wu-Tang Clan have teamed up with Impossible Foods and White Castle in an “out there” new web series, aptly titled “Wu Tang in Space Eating Impossible Sliders.” To spread the good news about taking the Impossible Burger to White Castles nationwide, starting last month, the four-part series features Ghostface Killah, GZA and RZA aboard their spaceship — the Wu-F-O — orbiting Earth while answering questions left by fans at 1-833-4-SLIDER and eating White Castle’s new Impossible Sliders (of course, right?). In Episode 2, which launched Wednesday, Impossible Foods’ founder & CEO Pat Brown joins the Wu-Tang Clan and remarks on the bounty planet Earth provides.
Shot in the style of ’60s and ’70s science fiction television shows such as “Star Trek,” the series – directed by DJ, music producer, composer and film director Sam Spiegel — was conceived by Impossible Foods’ all-female creative department, led by Executive Creative Director Sasha Markova, Creative Director Giselle Guerrero and Executive Managing Director Heather Huestis. The vision for the miniseries revolved around the shared belief that a new paradigm of living (and eating) must be created, one that emphasizes our need to protect the future of our planet. The resulting episodes represent the purpose-driven, philosophical and whimsical approaches taken by Impossible Foods, White Castle and the Wu-Tang Clan.
Fans of the show are being asked to share thoughts (any and all) with Impossible Foods, White Castle and the Wu via social media (#ImpossibleSlider), and to view the content while eating a delicious plant-based Impossible Slider at the nearest White Castle.
While the partnership with Wu-Tang might seem random, Ghostface, GZA and RZA have actually been champions of plant-based lifestyles for decades.
"I always ate White Castle growing up, so for there to be plant-based sliders now is amazing," GZA, also a frequent speaker on space and physics at the likes of MIT and Oxford , as well as the host of the Netflix series, “Liquid Science,” recently told Forbes. "Other companies should follow."
As well as hoping other companies will follow Impossible Foods’ lead in making vegetarian diets more popular, GZA aims to inspire consumers, as well: As he told Forbes, the topic is more timely than ever given the state of the planet and the theme's lack of representation in present-day hip hop: "Hip hop in the 1990s had a different level of consciousness. A lot of artists today aren't focused on health and eating right, so we hope to influence others."
Influencing others to embrace more plant-based diets is also the continued goal of World Resources Institute (WRI), which has dedicated its work to Shifting Diets since 2016.
In a blog post this week, WRI’s Richard Waite and Daniel Vennard further the argument that “limiting the global rise in meat consumption — in particular, beef, lamb and goat — is critical for reining in runaway warming. Ruminant meats have the highest resource requirements of any of the foods we eat. Producing beef, for example, uses 20 times the land and emits 20 times the emissions as producing beans, per gram of protein. Researchers have shown that even when accounting for future improvements in agriculture and reductions in food waste, shifting the diets of higher-income consumers toward plant-based foods remains essential for meeting climate targets.”
One of WRI’s newest initiatives is its Cool Food Pledge. Developed in partnership with UN Environment, Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, Health Care Without Harm, Practice Greenhealth and Climate Focus, this new global platform will help companies, restaurants, universities, hospitals and other facilities offer delicious food while slashing food-related emissions 25 percent by 2030 — a level of ambition in line with the goals of limiting temperature rise to 1.5-2°C.
At the Global Climate Action Summit in September, 10 food providers serving more than 60 million meals annually — including the California Academy of Sciences, Genentech, Morgan Stanley and WeWork — committed to the Pledge; looking a few years ahead, the Pledge aims to cover billions of meals.
The range of actions signatories take will vary — from improving the taste and presentation of plant-rich dishes, to redesigning menus and cafeterias to promote climate-friendly choices, to using more appetizing language to appeal to mainstream consumers.