Humanity’s growing meat consumption is undermining the planet’s ability to produce food, according to a new report published in the science journal Nature.
In fact, humans need to eat 75% less red meat, 90% less pork, and half as many eggs on average to both prevent the environment-ravaging consequences of climate change and ensure that there will be enough food to go around when the global population surges to 10 billion later in the century.
“It is pretty shocking,” Marco Springmann at the University of Oxford, who led the research team, told the Guardian. “We are really risking the sustainability of the whole system. If we are interested in people being able to farm and eat, then we better not do that.”
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The authors of the study stressed that people in some countries need to make more drastic changes to their diets than others.
In the US and UK, for example, people need to eat 90% less red meat and 60% less milk, while some low-income countries are encouraged to eat more meat in the years ahead to improve nutrition standards, but the authors note that such an increase would be paltry compared to eating habits in Western countries.
Achieving such a massive reduction in meat consumption will not be easy. In the US, the average American is on track to eat 222.2 pounds of red meat and chicken this year, the highest amount ever recorded. In China, meanwhile, the average person eats 140 pounds of meat, a four-fold increase over the past four decades.
This demand is fueling an expansion of meat operations around the world and is having a staggering impact on the global environment.
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Meat production is one of the leading causes of deforestation, which accelerates climate change and destroys ecosystems, because of the large swaths of land required for cattle grazing. Raising animals also requires huge amounts of animal feed, which requires even more land to grow, and water.
Animal feed takes up around 36% of global farmland, while a single pound of hamburger requires 600 gallons of water, compared to 5 gallons for a pound of potato, according to the US Geological Survey.
The billions of animals in the global meat production industry release enormous quantities of greenhouse gas emissions and can contaminate water supplies with their waste. To give a sense of the industry’s scale, 60% the mammals left in the world are livestock, 36% are pigs, and 4% are wild. Similarly, farmed poultry account for 70% of the world’s birds.
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Reducing meat production calls for more of the world’s farmland to be used for high-yield, low-resource crops that put little pressure on the planet and can feed as many people as possible. These include legumes, grains, vegetables, and more.
The authors said that the steep global subsidies for meat can instead be given to plant-based foods and schools can become engines of change by adapting their menus. They further argued that fertilizer use has to be better managed to prevent environmental pollution and food waste has to be dramatically curbed. If all food waste was diverted onto people’s plates, then world hunger could be eliminated.
“I think we can do it, but we really need much more proactive governments to provide the right framework,” Springmann told the Guardian. “People can make a personal difference by changing their diet, but also by knocking on the doors of their politicians and saying we need better environmental regulations – that is also very important. Do not let politicians off the hook.”
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This report was published the same week as the United Nations’ years-long analysis of climate change, which calls for “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to save the planet from catastrophe.
Meat consumption is high on the list of practices that need to be dramatically scaled down if not nearly abandoned altogether, according to the report.