The main conclusions of recent research are clear - the ‘average world citizen’ needs to eat up to 75% less beef, 90% less pork and 50% less eggs. Correspondingly, we need to significantly increase consumption of vegetables and fruits, beans and pulses, nuts and seeds.
The research also shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, they use the vast majority - 83% - of farmland and produce 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The 2018 study (published in the journal Science) echoed similar research over the past 3 decades. The study was one of the largest and most detailed to date (based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries, covering 40 key food products representing 90% of all that is eaten). It analysed the farm to fork impact of such foods on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water and air pollution.
It has long been clear that our industrial food model with its attendant consumption (and waste) patterns causes great damage to the environment (via greenhouse gases, deforestation, water shortages and through the creation of large ocean dead zones from agricultural pollution).
As any basic level of reflection indicates, such impact will get far worse as world population increases by 2.3 billion people by 2050, as our fundamentalist ‘economics only ’ model of ‘development’ rolls on, as incomes for many increase and as more people are seduced into western-style diets.
Significantly avoiding or reducing meat and dairy products is now the single most significant way to reduce our collective environmental impact on the planet. A major global shift towards a ‘flexitarian’ diet is now the central food menu option.
There is now little doubt that an ‘as you were’, western meat-saturated diet will smash critical environmental limits with consequences none of us will avoid.
UN Food and Agriculture Organisation data on meat consumption illustrates the issue. Countries such as the US, Australia, those of the EU are consistently at the top end of meat consumption per capita (including Malta). This ranges from a high of almost 100 kgs per person in the US, 95 in Australia and an EU average of 70. Malta checks in at about 73+ kgs per person.
Against this, India records just 3.3 kgs and Nigeria 5.5 while the world average is approximately 34 kgs.
In an important footnote to the debate (and one that will dismay ‘meat lovers’), the millions of people in poorer countries who remain significantly undernourished need to eat more meat and dairy.
The implications are deeply uncomfortable, especially for richer countries and populations. Even from a health perspective, the dietary changes needed are stark and amount to a ‘no-brainer’.
Giving up beef alone or simply reducing its consumption will (according to the research) reduce our carbon footprint much more than all our playing about with electric cars, energy saving lightbulbs or flight carbon offset options.
The alternatives already exist. However resistance to the needed changes is immense, based as it is on emotion and tradition as well as the power and influence of the industrial food lobby.
Ultimately, we live on a finite planet, with finite resources. It is an ongoing popular fiction that there is a ‘magic bullet’, a technical ‘fix’ that will allow us to produce, consume and waste as much food as we please. Nothing could be further from the truth.
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