Beef in the spotlight as environmental and health concerns expand
Governments seek ways of lowering the environmental footprint of agriculture while persuading societies to change their diet
By Fermín Koop
Meat is an important part of the identity of many societies across the globe. It’s also a status symbol, with many choosing to eat it more as their incomes grow, and it’s also the main source of proteins for many communities that don’t have access to other types of food where they live.
But meat is also making us and the planet sick. A diet with a lot of meat increases the risk of obesity, cancer and heart disease, many studies have shown, while polluting the planet.
The livestock sector — cows, pigs and chickens — generates as much greenhouse gas emissions as all vehicles. This raises the question of what the path forward will be, especially considering that global meat consumption is expected to grow 75% by 2050. The need for reducing emissions and changing our diets is clear and there are many paths that need to be explored.
“The world needs to get towards levels of meat and dairy consumption that allow for a safe planet. Privileged societies in developed and developing countries are the ones that have to lead the change as that’s where the highest consumption is as well as the highest possibility of lowering it,” Reyes Tirado, a researcher at Greenpeace, said.
The environmental issue
Food production creates massive environmental impacts due to greenhouse gas emissions from animals (mostly methane), deforestation and water consumption. The livestock sector specifically is estimated to cause 14.5 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that cause climate change.
Globally, meat and dairy production uses 83% of land dedicated to agriculture and generates 60% of the sector’s emissions. Along with cutting consumption, the other main challenge is increasing the amount of food produced per hectare as the world’s population is expected to increase 2.3 billion by 2050.
“Preventing catastrophic warming is dependent on tackling meat and dairy consumption, but the world is doing very little,” said Rob Bailey, research director at Chatham House. “A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap in the livestock sector.”
Every three minutes, a cow belches through its nose. Inside the first chamber of their stomachs, known as the rumen, are bacteria that break down everything they eat. During the process they emit methane, a gas that contributes 25 times more to global warming than carbon dioxide, which transport and industry are largely responsible for.
On top of this are emissions from waste and indirect emissions linked to deforestation through the expansion of pasture.
The transgenic (GMO) soybean boom in Latin America largely displaced cattle ranching to new regions, many covered by native forests.
Compared to pigs or chickens, cows need 28 times more land and eleven times more food and water. They also generate five times more emissions, according to US-based researcher Gidon Eshel. The gap is even greater compared to plants such as potatoes and rice, which need around 160 times fewer resources.
“If we continue producing food the way we are and the demand continues to grow, we will need to cut down all the forests in the world to meet demand in 2050. But there is huge potential for improvement with greater efficiency,” said Tobias Baedeker, a World Bank economist who specializes in agriculture.
The health issue of meat consumption
The environment isn’t the single problem behind meat consumption. There’s also growing evidence of a wide array of health risks because of eating more than what’s recommended, including increased risks of colorectal cancers, cardio-vascular disease, obesity, diabetes and antibiotic resistance.
In 2015, a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meat (including bacon, sausages and ham) along with tobacco and asbestos as products that definitively cause cancer. Processed meat products contain high amounts of additives and chemicals, which may contribute to health risks.
That doesn’t mean red meat is bad but consuming more than three servings a week has been linked to different health risks. When consumed in moderation, red meat helps promote muscle growth due to its high amounts of protein and is also a good source of zinc, helping the body produce testosterone.
Responding to these health concerns, a number of governments around the world have published dietary guidelines highlighting the need to reduce meat consumption. In 2016, Public Health England’s new dietary advice recommended people halve their dairy intake and eat less meat.
On the same line, dietary guidelines drawn up by China’s health ministry in 2016 saw a downward revision of the lower end of its recommended meat consumption range, challenging the view that those who did not eat much meat were unhealthy.
Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard, said red meat should be considered “a luxury and not a staple food” and suggested using it as a side dish so to reduce consumption. At the same time, he said the same nutrients that are obtained from red meat could be obtained from other types of meat.
Research from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford estimated that eliminating all animal products from diets by shifting towards nutritionally balanced plant-based diets by 2050 could avoid USD 600 billion in climate damages and USD 1 trillion in healthcare expenses.
Growing meat consumption
The world agreed to limit global warming to 2ºC in the Paris Agreement of climate change signed in 2015. As most efforts have focused on moving beyond fossil fuels and expanding renewable energy, it’s now clear that the Paris goal won’t be met without a big shift in global meat and dairy consumption.
That doesn’t necessarily mean switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Those sorts of changes wouldn’t be realistic, many reports showed, especially in countries with a high intake of red meat such as the US. Instead, experts call for people to reduce the amount of meat they eat every week.
Research by Oxford University said that in order to avoid a global warming of more than 2ºC the world must eat 75% less beef, 90% less pork and cut egg consumption by half. Meanwhile, another report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) said high-meat consuming countries should reduce consumption by 40%.
Nevertheless, reducing meat consumption will be tricky. According to UK think-tank Chatham House, global meat consumption is expected to grow 75% by 2050. China will be mainly responsible for a large part of the increase due to population and income growth.
“Our appetite for meat is a major driver of climate change. Reducing global meat consumption will be critical to keeping global warming below the ‘danger level’ of two degrees Celsius,” said the report.
It’s estimated that the average Chinese citizen will consume 55 kilos of meat per year by 2026, 10% more than in 2017, according to a report by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the OECD. Pork will remain the preferred option, representing 60% of the total.
Taxes, the possible way forward
Seeking ways to get people to consume less meat, experts have also called to implement more taxes on meat products, with a group of countries already discussing the idea in Europe.
The pathway to taxation typically starts when there is global consensus that an activity or product harms society. This leads to an assessment of their financial costs to the public, which in turn results in support for some form of additional taxation.
Taxes on tobacco, carbon and sugar have followed this playbook and now could be the turn for meat. They are already on the agenda in Denmark, Sweden and Germany and more countries could soon follow as the climate agenda pushes forward.
In 2016, the Danish Council on Ethics, an advisory body to the Danish parliament, released a report examining whether the choice of consuming foods with a large environmental footprint should be left to the consumer – or whether regulation should be introduced to reduce the climate impact of food consumption. The report included a call for the introduction of a tax on red meat.
The Council recommended a tax on red meat based on climate impact, specifically a sales tax levied on consumers as opposed to producers. In early 2017 the Danish opposition party, The Alternative, put forward a follow-up proposal for a Danish meat tax that suggested a tax of 17 DKK (approx. $2.7) per kg/ beef. The proposal forms part of a wider green tax reform championed by the party.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, three MPs for the Swedish Green party tabled a motion in 2016 calling for the introduction of a climate tax on food. The motion comprised of two steps the first of which was the introduction of a tax on beef.
As in Denmark, the Swedish proposal sought to impose the levy on consumers rather than. The Swedish proposal suggests a potential figure of about 20SEK (approx. $2.3) per kilogram.
Finally, in 2017, Germany’s federal environment agency proposed raising taxes on animal products such as liver sausages, eggs and cheese from seven to 19% for environmental reasons. The tax rise is designed to offset the impact of the agricultural industry on climate change through high methane emissions.
Changing production processes
As well as reducing consumption, there are other paths that can help to lower the emissions from agriculture. There’s a direct link between the amount of emissions and the level of efficiency achieved by producers. This opens the door to implementing new technologies and practices to increase production efficiency at animal levels.
For cows, the list of options includes using better feeds and feeding techniques, which can reduce methane (CH4) generated during digestion as well as the amount of nitrous oxide (N2O) released by decomposing manure.
Improved breeding and animal health interventions to allow herd sizes to shrink (meaning fewer and more productive animals) will also help. And manure management that ensures recovery and recycling of nutrients and energy, plus the use of energy saving devices, also have a role to play.
“A more efficient animal will have lower methane emissions per kilogram of. In other words, the demand for animal products could be met with the same number of heads. It is clear that we can reduce emissions to the atmosphere,” said Guillermo Berra, a researcher at INTA in Argentina.
The figures are clear. Agriculture, specifically red meat, is responsible for a large part of the global warming currently affecting the planet. But it is also among the sectors that have been less pressed to reduce polluting emissions, with most efforts concentrated on the energy and transportation sectors.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean there are no possible solutions ahead. Meat consumption has to decrease, ideally from the current average of three times a week to 1.5. If not, it will be difficult to meet the climate goals set in the Paris Agreement. A way to encourage that could be taxes, as some countries are exploring.
In the meantime, farmers will have to be more productive and efficient. There are new technologies out there to improve the kind of food cows eat and to handle manure better, which would mean less emissions from cattle. But without a change in diet that is unlikely to be sufficient.
* Fermín Koop is an Argentine journalist specialized in environment and climate change news. He works as a freelancer for diverse news websites and newspapers such as Buenos Aires Times, China Dialogue and Cronista. He holds a bachelor degree in journalism and an MSc on Environment and Development.