According to a new study published by researchers at the German University of Bonn, rich countries must drastically reduce their meat consumption in order to keep global climate goals within reach and ensure future food security. It is the latest in a string of recent research demonstrating the massive environmental strain caused by large-scale livestock farming. So how exactly are meat consumption and climate change related to each other, and what can we do about it?

As of May 2022, around 140 million tons of meat have already been eaten globally – a number that is rising by the minute, and with astonishing speed. At the end of each year, global meat consumption amounts to around 350 million tons; double the amount of 1988 and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. At the same time, evidence of the meat and milk industry’s significant contribution to climate change is piling up: according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, our global food system accounted for over a third of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, and around half of them are attributed to livestock alone. In fact, twenty of the world’s biggest meat and milk producers single-handedly emit more greenhouse gases than whole industrialised countries like Germany, France or Britain, as a recent report published by Friends of the Earth has shown. 

Accordingly, voices urging an emissions cut from animal agriculture are growing increasingly louder. Most recently, Martin Parlasca and Matin Qaim of the University of Bonn reviewed the current state of research on the environmental as well as health and economic effects of eating meat, concluding that rich countries must cut meat consumption by at least 75%. Americans in the US, the world’s top meat eaters, currently consume around 124 kilograms of meat per person and year, Europeans around 80 kg – both a multiple of dietary recommendations. “If all humans consumed as much meat as Europeans or North Americans”, Qaim states, “we would certainly miss the international climate targets and many ecosystems would collapse”. For comparison, in some African countries, people consume less than 20kg of meat per year, equalling the amount recommended for rich countries by the study’s authors.

How Does Livestock Affect Climate Change?

But what makes livestock so environmentally damaging? On the one hand, ruminants like cows emit methane and thereby directly drive climate change. Beyond this, the large ecological footprint of animal products is also due in large part to the fact that their production is highly inefficient in terms of resource use. Meat and milk production uses great amounts of energy, water and land, the majority of which goes into the growing of animal feed like corn and soy. The problem is that only a small portion of the calories consumed by the cattle is converted into meat or dairy for human consumption. As a consequence, animal husbandry occupies 83% of global farmland, but provides only 18% of the world’s calories. Producing milk or dairy thus requires a much greater area of land to feed a certain amount of people than plant foods do – think of it as the food taking a detour over the animal and losing a large amount of its nutritional value in the process. This is especially problematic in view of the growing world population and its increasing food requirements; at the moment, half the grain and 90% of soy produced worldwide is used as animal feed, although it could feed a much greater amount of people were it consumed by humans directly. It is estimated that as a result, if we are to sustain our current dietary habits, there might be more people on our planet than it will be possible to feed already by 2050. 

In addition to that, animal agriculture’s enormous demand for land represents a great strain for natural ecosystems. To make space for cattle farming and large-scale growing of animal feed, huge areas of land are cleared, meaning deforestation and then planting of monocultures – often in some of the world’s most naturally valuable and vulnerable areas such as the Amazon. Thus displacing native plants and species, livestock farming negatively impacts biodiversity around the world; as WWF reported already in 2017, meat-based diets can be linked to as much as 60% of global biodiversity loss. This further exacerbates the effects of global warming, as biodiversity loss weakens the natural environment’s resilience and its ability to mitigate the effects climate change

A Plant-Based Diet for the Planet?

So how can we lessen the environmental impacts of our diets? Drastically reducing meat consumption in the West, as Parlasca and Qaim suggest, is the straightforward answer. Replacing 80% of animal products in our diets with plant-based options would be even better, a recent study from Finland suggests. This way, the climate impacts of European diets could be reduced by as much as 75% – vis-a-vis a 60% reduction achieved by rationing just our meat intake. The Finnish researchers determined the environmental impacts of an omnivorous diet versus diets in which all animal-source products were replaced with either plant-based or so-called novel foods – think lab-grown meat and milk, insects or algae – and in so doing attempted to model the ultimate climate friendly diet. They found that using novel foods, the environmental impacts of our diets could be reduced by over 80%. Nonetheless, they see limited potential in this kind of diet, considering that the unfamiliar novel foods might hold little appeal for many. And getting people to incorporate novel foods is not even necessary, says Rachel Mazac, one of the study’s authors. Considering that diets that simply cut down on meat and dairy were almost as climate friendly, she states, “the real take-home message is we have food pathways forward.”

This does not mean the whole world needs to go vegan, though. Especially in poorer regions, growing and harvesting vegetables and legumes might not always be feasible, so animal products will remain an important element of local diets. However in such regions, meat consumption is very moderate already – cutting down the environmental impacts of our food systems by reducing meat and dairy consumption is thus up to industrialised nations, as Parlasca and Qaim emphasise. So far, with meat consumption increasing across the world and plateauing in Europe, there is no sign of such efforts. One way to change this might be the introduction of taxes on animal products, as has been called for in several European countries such as Denmark or Sweden and is currently being discussed in Germany. According to a 2016 study conducted by an Oxford University team, a surcharge of 40% on beef and 20% on milk would be necessary across the world to account for the damages the production of these foods causes through climate change. Other animal products such as lamb, chicken, pork and eggs would require a tax of 15%, 8.5%, 7% and 5%, respectively. Such price increases, the team around leading food scientist Marco Springmann calculated, have the potential for dramatic cuts in consumption. The consumption of beef, they estimate, would thus drop by up to 13%.

At the same time, such taxes would require redirecting subsidies for animal agriculture to the production of fruits and vegetables as well as alternative plant-based protein, as Springmann states. At the moment, animal agriculture is being heavily subsidised in Western countries, making disproportionately low prices for animal products possible while having citizens indirectly co-fund the climate crisis. In the US, for instance, livestock production is subsidised with as much as USD$38 billion a year, while fruit and vegetables are allocated a mere $17 million, or 0.04% of the former. If these subsidies were increased and combined with adequate taxes as well as payments to ensure poorer people are able to afford a healthy diet, the Oxford researchers found, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by as much as 1 billion tons a year. This equals the yearly emissions of the global aviation industry. 

Looking Ahead

The scientific consensus is clear: if we are to mitigate the extent of global warming and ensure future food security, the ways we eat and produce food need to change. While the prospect of making our food systems more sustainable may be daunting, there is also a positive here: changing the way we eat holds enormous potential to make a real dent in the fight against climate change – and in a comparatively easy way that holds significant public health co-benefits. Yes, changing our eating habits may involve small personal sacrifices, but it is also empowering that our ability to slow global warming does not solely depend on cutting-edge technology or scientific insights. Political and economic action will be necessary for the large-scale changes that are ultimately needed, but until then, the power of individual action should not be underestimated; as a study undertaken by international engineering firm Arup has recently shown for the first time, individuals “have primary influence over 25-27% of the emissions savings needed by 2030 to avoid ecological meltdown” – and this is a minimum number, since individual action is also politically necessary to drive change in business and government, where the remaining 75% of emissions savings are decided upon. Individual action has moreover never been more urgent than now; the study also concludes that “efforts by citizens and communities are particularly important between now and 2030”, as we are currently in the midst of the pivotal decade for climate action. So next time you go for that oat milk or join in on that climate strike, no matter how insignificant it may feel, know that actually, you are making a difference.