Can we eat Big Macs and still avoid climate chaos?

By Marlowe HOOD
Not everyone needs to become a vegetarian much less vegan to keep the planet from overheating, but it would probably make things a lot easier if they did, a UN report concludes Photo: AFP/File

Not everyone needs to become a vegetarian, much less vegan, to keep the planet from overheating, but it would probably make things a lot easier if they did.

That's the ambiguous and -- for many on either side of this meaty issue -- unsatisfying conclusion of the most comprehensive report ever compiled on the link between climate change and how we feed ourselves, released by the United Nations.

The core findings are crystal clear: climate change is threatening the world's food supply, even as the way we produce food fuels global warming.

Rising temperatures in tropical zones are starting to shrink yields, displace staple crops, and sap essential nutrients from food plants.

At the same time, the global food system -- from farm to food court -- accounts for at least a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. With two billion more mouths to feed by mid-century, it cannot simply be scaled up without pushing Earth's thermometer deep into the red zone, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) "special report".

More than half of today's food-related emissions come from the animal sector, and half of that from sheep and, most of all, cattle.

"Today’s IPCC report identifies the enormous impact that our dietary choices have on the environment," commented Alan Dangour, a nutrition and global health expert at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

"It is clear that reducing the demand for meat in diets is an important approach to lowering the environmental impact of the food system."

The livestock industry is a double climate threat: it replaces CO2-absorbing forests -- notably in sub-tropical Brazil -- with land for grazing and soy crops for cattle feed. The animals also belch huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

On average, beef requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gases per unit of edible protein than basic plant proteins, notes the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based policy think tank.

For all these reasons, the IPCC concludes, gravitating towards "balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods" would hugely help the climate change cause.

This may sound like a ringing endorsement of vegetarianism, but it doesn't necessarily mean the world must, or should, eschew meat altogether, the IPCC said.

Besides "coarse grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds," that "balanced diet" also includes "animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-greenhouse gas emission systems," the report concluded.

There are likely several reasons the 100-plus authors stopped short of calling for a ban on carbon-intensive red meat.

To begin with, calling for anything is not part of their brief.

"The IPCC does not recommend people's diets," co-chair Jim Skea, a professor at Imperial College London's Centre for Environmental Policy, tweeted in reaction to misleading media stories.

"What we've pointed out on the basis of scientific evidence is that there are certain diets that have a lower carbon footprint."

Observers privy to the week-long meeting, which vets the report summary line-by-line, also note that some scientific findings align better than others with the interests of beef-producing nations.

IPCC reports are based entirely on published, peer-reviewed research, and this one included thousands of data points.

But the final step in a years-long process is approval by diplomats who tussle over how key passages are formulated, including what gets left in or out.

Another compelling reason not to espouse a purely plant-based diet is that billions of people around the world depend on fish, and to a lesser extent meat, for protein and nutrients that may not be readily available elsewhere.

"More than 800 million people have insufficient food," noted Harvard University's Walter Willett, co-commissioner of a landmark study earlier this year in The Lancet proposing a "reference diet" for optimal health that is long on veggies, legumes and nuts, and short on meat, dairy and sugar.

That diet, The Lancet study found, could feed a world of 10 billion people in 2050 -- but only barely.

"We are suggesting a more balanced diet that has roughly 100 grammes per person per week of red meat -- a single serving once a week rather than ever day," co-author Johan Rockstrom, former director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Impacts, told AFP.

© 2019 AFP

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Thank you but NO Thank you.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

"Less Meat = Less Heat"

Not necessarily. Depends on what Mother Nature wants to do.

Even if the United States stopped all fossil fuel burning, the world's biggest CO2 emitter, China, is not even going to even cut back on their emissions.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Anyone believing the hype that eating meat is gonna cause the climate to change isn't looking at the facts, CO2 only makes up 0.04 percent of the atmosphere thats 400 parts per million, there is no way something so small is gonna cause any problems - its more likely a fantasy being pushed by militant vegans.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

@Andrew Crisp

pushed by militant vegans.

It's from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Developed nations have a responsibility to adopt the most environmentally sustainable diets and show a good example to developing nations like China, Brazil etc who if led to adopt lifestyles like the current American one will destroy the environment to the extent of threatening human existence.

It's science now and time for the American right, who appear to have adopted climate change denial as an article of faith, to grow up.

What's is also absolutely clear that the sources of deliberately misinformation in this area were large American industries serving their own financial self interests, despite even teir own experts predicting the change and threat.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

The first 3 responses are perfect examples of why efforts to change are wasted.

Belligerence, disbelief and misinformation.

3 strikes...we're out.

Even if we magically reduce emissions to zero tomorrow, the planet will still warm due to what is already out there. Our actions have kick started a cycle that future generation 'may' survive...but the interconnection of the problems and consistant denial has me doubting our species will continue beyond the 2100 deadline.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I’ve know for years that a diet of McDonald’s is responsible for a good deal of the gas released into the atmosphere.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The only real way we can do something significant is by reducing the world's population.

This planet was not meant to facilitate so many people.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Well, not about climate, but I know super size me is not doing any good with my body.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Let's see...the most important factor in Agriculture is a stable and crop friendly climate in which to grow one's food. "...10 Billion people but just barely..." but estimated at today's yields. That is not what we are expecting in the next thirty years because, even if we drastically cut per capita fossil fuel CO2 loading of the atmosphere, the demand is going to increase literally exponentially because that is how our population is growing: Geometically, not linearly. And this next doubling will see population increase FASTER than ever in our history. The World Human presence was ~1.8 Billion souls in 1920. In 1970 it was ~3.6 Billion. In 2019, it is 7.7 Billion. When a population is growing exponentially, the 'doubling time' is constant. In the near future, more births will occur per day than at ANY TIME in the past. That is, population will increase and it will increase at a highly accelerated rate. The ONLY bright spots I have seen in Humanity's future is the apparently spontaneous subthreshold 'decision' (?) by some of the best educated people in our world, the Japanese People, to subdue their own needs in the face of what is obviously to them coming and reduce their reproduction. Iran, apparently, also. But our governments and religions criminally fight these decisions by responsible people because they fear loss of power, fewer soldiers, less tax revenue, et alia. But, if just the 'responsible' people choose to not add to the collective burden which the world faces, all of the next generation's children will be of those who are less aware or don't care about our collective future. The biggest potential threat of Mankind's extinction is the least discussed, most ignored, perhaps because the 'rulers' have their own plan. "Massive population reduction" has been openly discussed by people for whom overwhelming evidence of their pure psychopathy and horrific behaviors greets us almost everyday in the news. Young people, you have my apologies and condolences because we are screwing you very badly and it's only going to get worse. And no one argues that we are, ourselves, a Major Extinction Event for our planet. And when this place crashes, it may be with the highest Human load in history. 10(?) or 12(?) Billion Humans all starving at once. And the last cockroach consumed. Time to wake up, kids. Greta? GANBARE!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

If restaurants like McDonalds go back to using soy based vege ingredients in their hamburgers perhaps this will offset the demand for beef, and provide for more healthy hamburger?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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