Meat production is fuelling climate change. Because of our high meat consumption, westerners are to blame. This article explains why this means that we should reduce our meat consumption and provides guidelines for how you can go about it.

Many westerners love meat. Whether it’s wings, burgers or steaks, we can’t get enough of the stuff. However, whilst our hankering for hamburgers may not be decreasing, neither are the reasons to reduce meat consumption.

The global increase in vegetarianism and veganism tells us that these reasons aren’t going unnoticed. But what about us western meat lovers who are a long way from cutting out all meat? Why should we reduce our meat consumption? If we do, how do we go about it?

This article presents the impact of meat production on climate change, and subsequently, explains why western meat-eaters should reduce meat consumption. The good news is that we don’t have to cut meat out completely. So, I present steps you could take to make your diet sustainable whilst still enjoying meat.

The Hard Truth

Let’s begin with the tough stuff, the hard truth of what our meat consumption is doing to the planet.

Livestock production accounts for 14.5% of anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Shockingly, this is roughly equivalent to the GHG emissions from all transport types combined. This percentage is so high because rearing animals for food uses vast amounts of land, foodstuffs, fertilisers and water.

As figure one shows, not all meat footprints are the same. Meat from ruminant animals like beef and lamb, contribute more emissions than meat from non-ruminant animals like pork and chicken. This is partially because their digestive systems naturally cause them to pollute more methane, but is also because they require more land to be converted for agriculture, for grazing and to produce feed for their consumption. The latter increases GHG emissions as it requires more fertiliser.

Figure One

Furthermore, when deforestation is used to free-up land for cattle, this cattle becomes “responsible for 12 times more GHG emissions than cows reared on natural pastures”. In total, beef and lamb contributes 50% of the emissions of all animal products, so eating a diet of these meats has a higher climatic impact.

Overall, this evidence shows that “meat production really matters in calculations of future global warming”.

Why you should reduce your meat consumption

Global Overconsumption

Despite this hard truth, globally, we’ve never consumed more meat than we currently do.

Thanks to the positive relationship between meat consumption and increases in wealth, global meat consumption has grown by 2.6% annually since 1980. Figure one shows that most of this occurred in developing countries. Yet, it also shows that the developed world still eats much more meat, undoubtedly because of it’s higher levels of wealth.

Figure Two

With the projected increase in global population and wealth in developing countries, this is only going to increase more with the global meat consumption expected to double by 2050. This would require 200 million tonnes more meat being produced a year- this is clearly unsustainable. Consequently, you should cut down your meat intake now, to reduce our high levels of meat production, thereby, mitigating the climatic damage that this production would cause.

Here, it’s reasonable to question whether dietary changes will make as big of a difference as production changes since the issues are predominantly related to how meat is produced.

An Oxford University Study clarifies the value of dietary changes over production changes. It shows that meat production naturally has a high environmental impact and so meat will always be more harmful. Subsequently, changing our diets will have a bigger impact, as highlighted by the fact that that cutting animal products from your diet “could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by two-thirds”.

For Food Security

Reducing your meat consumption can also help achieve global food security.

Food security can be thought of as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (UNFAO) definition below. Although the exact definition is contentious, I adopt this definition because the UN represents most of the countries in the world, so the definition should be neutral and inclusive.

“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.”

According to this definition, 2 billion people are already food insecure. Wheeler and von Braun explain that climate change fuelled by meat production will exacerbate this, since it will hinder crop productivity, thereby diminishing food availability and possibly compromising entire food systems. Consequently, climate change poses a real threat to our efforts to ensure every human being is food secure.

We must, therefore, change the way we eat by reducing our meat consumption, so that the world becomes and remains food secure.

Crops in Kenya dying as a consequence of climate variability.

For Food Justice

Reducing your meat intake will also help bring about food justice.

Developed countries historically have eaten more meat than developing countries, meaning they’ve polluted more GHGs from meat consumption. If we invoke the idea that polluters should pay, westerners must bear more of the burden when it comes to reducing meat consumption.

It’s also more just for westerners to reduce their meat consumption because we have a greater ability to. Individuals from developing countries have fewer or even no other option than to include meat in their diet, whereas, individuals from developed countries can afford alternatives, so we should take more responsibility for the burden of reducing meat consumption.  

Furthermore, the projected food insecurity that could result from climate change, will disproportionately impact countries already suffering high levels of hunger and countries that are vulnerable to extreme weather. Since most of these countries are in the developing world, this will exasperate global food inequalities and increase existent food injustice. Therefore, we should reduce our meat consumption to alleviate the potential for greater food inequality.

We must also consider future generations. For our ancestors to enjoy meat, we must reduce our meat consumption now, to change social norms, so that sustainable meat-eating becomes normal to future generations.

What dietary changes should you make?

Now that you know why you should reduce your meat consumption, how should you go about it?

Adopting the Mediterranean diet is a popular method amongst experts, largely because it has a “low environmental impact due to low consumption of animal products”.

In short, the Mediterranean diet is made up of:

  • Olive oil
  • Cereals
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • A moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat
  • Condiments and spices
  • Wine or infusions.

The YouTube video by Vox below, provides further information about the climatic benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

Whilst the Mediterranean diet is a great pathway, it’s also true that changing your diet is difficult; a drastic change from the western norm of having meat centred meal, to any new diet is not easy. The good news for the planet is that social norms and diets “can and do change”.

So, what are some good first steps? Firstly, reduce your weekly meat intake. Eisler and co-authors promote cutting your meat to only eat 300 grams of red meat a week. This is aspirational but achievable if you gradually reduce the portion size of meat and opt-out more often. Starting by introducing a meat-free-day into your week, and gradually increase this. Also consider switching your meat, for example, by swapping beef for chicken.

Also, change your mindset and consider meat to be a luxury, eaten as an occasional treat like it was in the first half of the 20th Century. This will not only decrease your footprint, but it will increase your enjoyment too! Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver explains that with the right mindset, having treats can increase your enjoyment of that food. By making it an occasion, you can be fully aware of what you’re eating and “appreciate it for what it is”.

What should you eat instead? With the rise of vegetarianism and veganism in the West, meat substitutes are becoming increasingly available and they have a much lower footprint than meat.

Alternatively, consider other animal foodstuffs like seafood, eggs and dairy products which “are nutritionally equivalent in terms of protein”.

Plant-based protein alternatives are also an option, for instance, nuts and beans. Moving towards a diet with more plant-based foods not only reduces your environmental impact but also results in improved health benefits, a claim support by a growing number of professional athletes.

Venus Williams (left) and Tom Brady (right), both benefit from a plant-based diet.

Overall, there is no one right way of cutting down your meat intake, you should find what is right for you. Although a challenge, don’t take reducing your meat intake as a chore, take it as an opportunity to make a difference through the way you eat and as an opportunity to try new things- who knows, you might even like what you find!