Eating to Save the Planet

Eating to Save the Planet: Dr. Aniyizhai Annamalai

We know climate change is real. We’ve seen hurricanes -- like Hurricane Ian -- increase in strength. Wildfires are more frequent. Severe drought this summer caused local farmers to lose a great deal of their crops. There is no question that the world is 1.1 degrees Celsius hotter on average and that weather patterns have changed.

Increasingly, policymakers are recognizing the significant impact that climate change has on our ecosystem, human health, and global food supply. Academic and scientific communities are researching solutions to reduce climate change and its impacts. At last year’s UN Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, countries pledged to reduce fossil fuel use, accelerate the switch to zero emission vehicles and preserve natural habitats. Following this, President Biden signed the historic Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which invests heavily in clean energy manufacturing and reducing vehicular emissions. World leaders are currently convening at COP27 in Egypt to discuss even more ambitious paths to slow climate change. 

Still, one significant source of greenhouse gas emissions receives scant attention -- industrial animal-based food production. Currently, food production accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly two-thirds of this total comes from animal-based food production -- twice as much as plant based food production. Even beyond emissions, increased meat production has an outsized adverse impact on global freshwater and land use. By allocating water and crops to livestock rather than humans, we risk world hunger.

World Food Programme: These are the warning signs of a global food shortage, July 11, 2022.

DW: A world going hungry? How conflict and climate change disrupt global food supply | Business Beyond, July 5, 2022.

Now This: How Meat Production Contributes to Climate Change, November 5, 2021.

Vox: Why beef is the worst food for the climate, May 13, 2020.

When I was growing up in Southern India, meat was a rare commodity in households. It was not a daily staple and certainly not eaten with every meal. It’s not that Indians are largely vegetarian; that’s a myth. Instead, high meat prices meant it was not easily affordable. Besides, all regions of India have a rich repertoire of delicious vegetable based foods and culturally, meat was not a significant part of the cuisine. But now when I visit, I see more meat around me. As more people are moving into the middle class, eating meat is fashionable and a status symbol. It is ironic that at a time when we are realizing the deleterious impact of meat production in the developed world, countries such as India and China are increasing meat consumption.

Meat is an inefficient way to feed the global human population. Currently, a majority of the world’s cropland is used to feed livestock and not people. Health and ethical considerations aside, environmental reasons for shifting to a plant based diet are compelling enough alone -- even plant foods with higher environmental impact compare favorably with most meat production.

But food habits are hard to change. Food is a daily pleasure and part of cultural practices. It is easier to focus on clean vehicles rather than "clean” food because we don’t have to make a fundamental change in behavior. But change doesn’t have to be drastic. For one, we now have plant-based meat alternatives, created to simulate the taste and texture of meat. An Impossible burger or a Beyond Meat burger or a Just Egg is easy to find in stores. Are these alternatives better for the environment? They certainly have a much smaller carbon footprint than meat, though larger than directly eating beans and legumes. Secondly, we don’t have to cut meat out of our diets completely in order to make a significant impact. Even moderate reductions in meat consumption would save several billion tons of CO2 emissions plus save large swaths of arable land and freshwater. Though only a portion of global emissions, switching to non-meat alternatives is no less important than switching to a hybrid car. We should not forget our diets amidst our scramble for energy efficient cars.

As individuals, our change to a plant-based diet (or driving a hybrid car) will not stop global warming -- we also need to ask our leaders to invest in clean energy production, including in agriculture and food production. Nevertheless, our individual actions can help. We can all do our little bit not simply by buying a hybrid or electric car but eating a little less meat. Just a little less.

Reuters: Satellites measure cow burps from space, May 4, 2022.

VERIFY: Yes, cattle are the top source of methane emissions in the US, December 14, 2021.

The Economist: What’s the future of food?, October 27, 2021.

NASA: Climate Change Could Affect Global Agriculture Within 10 Years, November 1, 2021.

Sentient Media: Food System Emissions: How Can We Reduce Our Carbon Footprint?, June 18, 2021.

Tom's Outdoors: Changing Paradigms | Regenerative Agriculture: a Solution to our Global Crisis? | Full Documentary, May 10, 2021.

Our Changing Climate: Can Small-Scale Farming Feed the World?, October 8, 2021.

Vox: The diet that helps fight climate change, December 12, 2017.