Wed, Aug 14, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Can we eat meat and still tame global warming?

By Marlowe Hood  /  AFP, PARIS

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

That is 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 on Thursday by the UN.

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 one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. With 2 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 one-quarter of today’s food-related emissions come from cattle and sheep.

“Today’s IPCC report identifies the enormous impact that our dietary choices have on the environment,” said Alan Dangour, a nutrition and global health expert at the London School of Hygiene and 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 carbondioxide-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, said the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based policy think tank.

For all these reasons, the IPCC said, gravitating toward “balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods” would hugely help the climate change cause.

This might sound like a ringing endorsement of vegetarianism, but it does not 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 said.

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, said on Twitter 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 said 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.

However, 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.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top