Studies suggesting that the global meat industry has a larger environmental impact than the emissions coming from the world’s entire transportation industry are hardly new. But with the COP21 climate talks in Paris scheduled to launch in less than a week (rather inconveniently after American Thanksgiving, especially for those millions of turkeys), the stubborn fact persists that this very uncomfortable, yet unrelenting, challenge merits discussion as society finds a way to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius this century.
To that end, the venerable Chatham House, the London-based independent policy institute, released a report this week that insists reducing meat consumption is crucial if the world is to limit the impacts of climate change in the coming decades.
The big hurdle? As the global middle class continues to grow, the demand for animal protein keeps surging. Chatham House researchers suggest that global meat consumption could increase as much as 76 percent by mid-century. Per capita demand for meat is flat-lining in most developing nations, but in industrialized countries, the average person consumes twice as much meat as most nutritionists believe is healthy — and three times as much in the United States than what dietitians generally say is sufficient.
The convergence of low public awareness, and politicians skittish of powerful lobbies, pose a daunting task in communicating the need to eat less meat. But the authors of the Chatham House report maintain that these challenges are surmountable, based on surveys in 12 countries and discussions with stakeholder groups and focus groups in large economies including the U.S., China, Brazil and the United Kingdom.
The start, according to Chatham House, is raising the public’s understanding of the links between meat consumption and the risks that climate change present. Such efforts only comprise a first step, however; the report’s analysts suggest that governments need to take leadership on this issue. After all, the global meat industry’s attempts to become more “sustainable” have proven to be little more than window dressing.
And therein lie the tasks governments must face: They have got to initiate debates about meat consumption that resonate with citizens and move the discussion forward within business, the media, civil society and the scientific community. Depending on the country, however, a national conversation would take different forms. The focus could be on health, as in countries such as the U.S. that struggle with obesity. Food safety could be the emphasis in countries such as China, which has had far too many gruesome episodes with tainted meat. And while the “culture of celebrity” endemic in many nations sparks many an eye-roll, the fact is that “influencers” in society could also be engaged in order to establish and promote ways to decrease meat consumption.
The Chatham House survey is full of theory and heady analysis; the difficult part, however, will be on how government wonks can work with other stakeholders to convince citizens to eat less meat in order to reduce pollution, improve public health and minimize environmental degradation. The reality is that governments will have to take measures that the global meat industry will fight tooth and nail.
For example, Chatham House’s researchers pointed to a British study suggesting that carbon pricing weaved into some food prices, including meat, could decrease emissions, improve citizens’ health and even raise revenues. Another tactic is analogous to what advocates for clean energy have long demanded: Just as governments should no longer subsidize fossil fuels, analysts recommend that nations explore ways in which to reduce or even eliminate subsidies on carbon-intensive food products such as meat and dairy.
The evidence that more of a plant-based, vegan diet does wonders for the human body and, in the long run, the environment is well established. But convincing 7 billion people to move in that direction will be a herculean effort; the Chatham House report, however, sets the table for the conversations that will be needed in the years to come.
Image credit: Leon Kaye