About 15% of global greenhouse emissions result from livestock farming, nearly equivalent to those generated by the transportation sector.
Is it healthier for the planet if humans stop consuming meat? That’s the question a reader asked First Check. After going through the scientific evidence – there’s a lot of promising research happening in this area – here’s our answer.
The meat industry is responsible for a large share of global greenhouse gas emissions. It contributes not only to global warming, but also causes direct environmental pollution. Therefore, reducing or cutting meat consumption can help fight the climate crisis.
Over recent decades, global meat consumption per capita has surged, nearly doubling since the early 1960s, as per a 2021 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Data indicates that wealthier nations consume more meat, which has a huge impact on the environment due to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock farming. Incidentally, 15% of global greenhouse emissions result from livestock farming, nearly equivalent to those generated by the transportation sector.
A compelling study published in Nature Food found that plant-based foods account for just 29% of greenhouse gases emitted by the global food industry. In contrast, 57% of greenhouse gas emissions in the industry are linked to breeding and rearing cows, pigs and other livestock as well as feeding them.
The study analysed total global greenhouse gas emissions for each food product and noted that beef production remains the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Poultry and pork production show lower carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, substituting beef with other meat can considerably reduce greenhouse gas emission.
That said, we need a more nuanced approach in terms of recommending vegetarian or vegan diets for all. While reductions in meat consumption levels will help sustainability, at least in high-income countries, studies show that in low- and middle-income countries, the ground realities may be different.
Meat is a rich source of various nutrients, so including it in local diets can help reduce widespread nutritional deficiencies and promote human health, especially where nutritious plant-based alternatives are not available or affordable. Besides, for many people in developing countries, meat and livestock production is an important source of income.
Climate change action from the food sector calls for changes at all stages, from producers to consumers. It’s prudent to be aware and make informed decisions about dietary choices.
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