photo by ProgressOhio (source: Flickr Creative Commons)

A UN report entitled ‘Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production’, released Wednesday, states that eating less meat and dairy is necessary to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change, global hunger and energy shortages.

From an article in the Guardian:

As the global population surges towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050, western tastes for diets rich in meat and dairy products are unsustainable, says the report from United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) international panel of sustainable resource management.

There’s been a bit of a back and forth regarding how much the meat and dairy industries contribute to climate change. Back in March a study was presented to the American Chemical Society by Dr. Frank Mitloehner, which claimed that environmentalists have exaggerated the greenhouse gas emissions of meat and dairy production.

Right wing media like Fox News and the Daily Mail jumped all over this, claiming this proved that eating less meat has no impact climate. More responsible reports in the Telegraph and on BBC News simply pointed out that Mitloehner discovered a fault in the comparative analysis between emissions from livestock and transportation used in a UN report entitled ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ – a point which the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization conceded. Basically, the UN used a ‘confusing analogy’, but the bulk of the UN report was not discredited.

The new UN report states that economic growth needs to be ‘decoupled’ from the energy and agricultural industries due to the environmental impacts connected to increases in income. Population growth, combined with rising income and increased consumption creates more competition for dwindling resources and an unsustainable burden on the environment.

From an article in the Telegraph:

The report, that will be presented to world governments, said the only way to feed the world while reducing climate change is to switch to more a more vegetarian diet.

Meat Free Mondays, as recommended by Paul McCartney and IPCC chair Dr Rajendra Pachauri, is a pretty simple and tame way to move in this direction, yet it has also been met with ardent criticism. This is remarkable considering how these plainly unsustainable industries are growing in light of increasing meat consumption in both the developed world and the growing middle class of the developing world, especially in China.

And it’s not just meat, but industrialized agriculture and food production in general that needs to be examined.

From a piece in the Atlantic:

all food production has global warming impacts, and some of the worst emitters have nothing to do with livestock. For example, wetland rice fields alone account for almost 30 percent of the world’s human-generated methane. British research has shown that highly processed vegetable foods such as potato chips have large carbon footprints. Some soy products in U.S. grocery stores are from croplands created by clear-cutting rainforests in Brazil. And researchers in Sweden discovered that the global-warming impact of a carrot varies by a factor of ten depending on how and where it’s produced. All of which shows that quitting meat does not absolve anyone’s diet of a connection to global warming.

Nor is it just climate change that factors into the environmental impact of agriculture – especially meat and dairy production – but also the massive consumption of fresh water, the use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, overfishing, deforestation and air and water pollution, just to name a few.

As the population grows, food production will also need to increase, which will require more efficient land and resource use. This is an advantage that vegetarian and vegan diets have over those high in meat and dairy.

by Graham Land

Additional resources:

UN report – Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production (PDF)