cattle farm
Source: Flickr

Climate change is a major threat to global food security. This threat will become greater and more severe unless we take action.[1] The meat industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change through large levels of greenhouse gas emissions.[2] Could reducing meat consumption and eliminating large-scale meat farms be the solution to long-term food security by mitigating climate change?

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”[3]

Climate change and food security

Agriculture is sensitive to climate change. Regions are affected differently: tropical climates suffer more than temperate ones. However, in the era of globalisation, where food systems are global, the effects are far-reaching.

Climate change exacerbates the risks of hunger in both the short-term and the long-term. It increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters such as droughts, floods and storms. These short-term disasters can destroy crops and impact livelihoods, trade and infrastructure making access to food difficult.

In the long-term, rising sea-levels threaten coastal regions, limiting available land for agriculture and causing destruction. Gradual increases in temperature make some areas more arid (making it harder to grow crops), threaten water availability and prolong hunger seasons (annual periods of lower crop yield).[4]

This year has seen East Africa, Yemen and northern Nigeria suffer the largest hunger emergency in the world. Conflict and persistent drought have created the crisis and pushed millions to the brink of starvation. Particularly in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, droughts have caused mass crop failure, livestock loss and severe water shortage.[5] This is a brutal example of how climate change affects food security.

drought ethiopia
Source: Flickr

Meat industry carbon footprint

 Agriculture, particularly the meat industry, is one of the biggest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gasses than all cars, trucks, trains and airplanes combined, with livestock accounting for 15-18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.[6][7] The three largest meat companies alone produce more emissions than France.[8]

meat and dairy emissions

Livestock farming produces methane (from manure) and nitrous oxide (from grain-feed fertiliser).[9] Both methane and nitrous oxide are far more potent that carbon dioxide.[10] Large-scale meat farms are responsible for releasing vast amounts of such emissions.

Meat farming, particularly cattle farming, is responsible for mass deforestation of rainforests. In South America, cattle farming was responsible for 71% of all deforestation between 1980-2005.[11] Deforestation accounts for around 10% of total emissions—roughly the same as the yearly emissions from 600 million cars. Rainforests act as carbon sinks (absorbing harmful carbon dioxide) and so are crucial for maintaining a safe balance in the atmosphere. Therefor destroying them whilst simultaneously releasing harmful emissions is accelerating climate change.

The solution?

In order to ensure greater food security, we must mitigate climate change. One of the best ways we can do this is to significantly reduce our meat consumption and eliminate large-scale farms. Attempts from the UN have been controversial so far but this does not mean efforts should cease.

Making people aware of the consequences of meat consumption is a must. The role of the meat and dairy industry in climate change is not publicised enough.[12] As a society we associate transport and factories as being the key polluters.[13] This must change.

Education is a valuable tool to encourage voluntary reduced meat consumption. People are more likely to accept radical changes if they believe it benefits them. Smoking bans and regulations are an example of this. Research has shown that improving awareness of multiple values such as health benefits, and climate and environmental benefits could provide a successful approach in public persuasion to eat less meat.[14]

Taking economic measures against large-scale meat farms would be an effective option for lowering meat consumption and production. Two ways to do this are reducing subsidies and enforcing emissions taxes.

The industry receives enormous subsidies in many countries ($38 billion in the U.S.), making meat cheap and accessible. Reducing subsidies to large-scale farms would make meat more expensive and deter customers. Subsidies could be redirected in order to promote sustainable diets and farming. Firstly, they could be redirected to industries, such as fruit and vegetable farming, which currently receive a fraction of the support.[15] This would make meat-free foods cheaper and more accessible, encouraging people to adopt more sustainable diets. Secondly, they could be redirected to sustainable farms. Small-scale farms are both better for the environment and important for many livelihoods across the world. These farms would provide a meat option that does not have the same environmental impact.

There have been calls from the UN for emissions taxes for large-scale farms. This would make those causing the greatest environmental damage accountable. Similar to reducing subsidies this would make it harder for these farms to continue the way they are, making meat more expensive and deterring customers. These economic measures would simultaneously reduce meat consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Conclusion

It is clear that climate change is a threat to food security and that this threat will only increase as climate change worsens. Although we must learn to adapt to some of the inevitable changes, mitigating climate change as much as possible is our best chance of reducing the threat to food security. Reducing our meat consumption is a relatively easy option.[16] This might seem radical but it is a lot less than radical than significantly reducing transport use. It would also have less of a detrimental impact on our quality of life. Engineering change on this scale will not be easy, but it is not impossible. With greater support from governments real change can be made. There will be backlash from large-scale farms and companies who benefit from the status quo, however with the right education and marketing, the public could accept such change.

(Climate footprint diagram source: Grain)