A damning new report from the World Resources Institute reveals just how seriously human beings need to address our current eating habits if we’re to have any hope of stopping climate change.
In 2010, the global population was seven billion. Projections for the year 2050 show a population of 9.8 billion. The world will require 56 per cent more food production than in 2010, with demand for animal-based foods expected to soar by almost 70 per cent.
Such figures are deeply concerning. There are currently already over 800 million hungry or malnourished people on Planet Earth, an issue which will only become more severe in the decades to come.
Already, agriculture uses nearly half of Earth’s vegetated land. According to the UN backed Creating a Sustainable Food Future report, our current food system is dangerously unsustainable, accounting for between 25 and 30 per cent of the Earth’s greenhouse gases.
If consumption continues to rise in conjunction with current food habits, six million square kilometres of forest will need to be converted to agricultural land, adding up to an area twice the size of India.
This vast area would reportedly be made up of two-thirds pasture land, and one third crops.
Experts are now looking towards the momentous task of feeding a rising global population in a way which won’t lead to the complete destruction of our planet. It’s a delicate balance, and one which requires tackling the evils of starvation and global warming simultaneously.
According to the World Resources Institute, radical changes are required within the agricultural industry as a matter of urgency. This new report has recommended a 22 item ‘menu for a sustainable food future’, divided into five distinct ‘courses’.
These ‘courses’ focus on reducing growth in demand for food and agricultural products, increasing food production without expanding agricultural land and exploiting reduced demand on agricultural land in order to both protect and restore forests, savannas, and peatlands.
The ‘menu’ also focuses on increasing fish supply through enhanced wild fisheries management and aquaculture, as well as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production.
A variety of important areas for improvement were noted within this report, including the need to ‘moderate ruminant meat consumption’ (red meat).
According to suggestions made within the report, high ruminant-meat consumers should aim to reduce their consumption by a full 40 per cent:
Ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) use two-thirds of global agricultural land and contribute roughly half of agriculture’s production-related emissions. Ruminant meat demand is projected to grow by 88 percent between 2010 and 2050.
Yet, even in the United States, ruminant meats (mostly beef) provide only 3 percent of calories. Closing the land and GHG mitigation gaps requires that, by 2050, the 20 percent of the world’s population who would otherwise be high ruminant-meat consumers reduce their average consumption by 40 per cent relative to their consumption in 2010.
UNILAD spoke with Mark from Eating Better, an alliance of over 60 civil society organisations pushing for changes in meat and dairy consumption.
Mark told UNILAD how Eating Better hopes to reduce the UK’s meat intake by 50 per cent by 2030, a goal he believes is both achievable and crucial:
If we don’t make changes across a whole host of things, including food – and meat and dairy is a big one of them – you’ll reach a tipping point in terms of climate change.
Scientists who are too often sidelined, by the view that; ‘we don’t like being told what to do by experts’ are trying to get governments to pay attention.
That’s why at this point in time we need to speed up action. And agriculture and what we eat is one big thing we can control.
According to Mark, public awareness of the environmental impact of animal agriculture is growing, with YouGov surveys from 2017 and 2019 revealing a 23 per cent increase among those who understand the impact.
Interestingly, although younger people are becoming more aware of the harmful environmental effects of their meat consumption, this isn’t deterring them from consuming animal products on a regular basis.
Mark spoke with UNILAD about these ‘disappointing’ statistics:
Younger people – 18 to 24 year olds – have a better understanding of this than older people. But the problem is that it’s not reflected in their actions. So they have an understanding, but it’s not following through to what they’re actually doing.
33 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds are still eating meat everyday, whereas just 15 per cent of 65 pluses are eating meat everyday. So although their understanding is lower, they’re actually doing a better job of taking action.
According to Mark, disparities in nutritional needs means there is no one size fits all approach when reducing your meat and dairy intake:
The 50 per cent by 2030 is a UK wide figure, we’re not saying everyone should reduce their meat intake by 50 per cent by 2030. Different people have different needs. Pregnant women have different needs. Older people have different needs.
So the big meat eaters – the people who eat an awful lot – have the ability to reduce their meat intake perhaps by more than 50 per cent.
People who aren’t eating very much and have a nutrient need to have more meat in their diet. For example pregnant women or people who may be anaemic, red meat can be a more important part of their diet. They have a different ability to reduce their intake of meat and dairy.
But as a whole UK wide population, we have a responsibility to eat less meat and dairy.
Mark told UNILAD the amount of plants needed to feed livestock means crops required for animal feed are encroaching on agricultural land, land which could be better used to feed the burgeoning global population.
According to Mark, 1 kg of meat needs 2.8 kg of human-edible feed for ruminants (e.g. cows, goats and sheep) and 3.2 kg for monogastrics (e.g. chickens and pigs).
There appears to be a widespread public opinion that eating chicken is better for the environment than eating beef. However, this isn’t entirely accurate, and Mark believes more awareness is needed about the environmental footprint of monogastrics.
Despite not releasing the same amount of greenhouse gases, Mark explained how chicken and pigs actually create ‘huge amounts of water and air pollution’:
Swapping from red meat to chicken or pigs works for greenhouse gases, but it doesn’t work for air and water pollution. Because chicken and pigs cause a huge amount of nitrogen and ammonia pollution which pollutes our waterways and pollutes our air.
There’s been the health argument, but there’s lots of other things to take into the equation. I think there’s a growing understanding there about the impact on water and air pollution, as well as other things.
Particularly in Northern Ireland, where the Northern Irish authorities have been very, very open to pig farming. And the amount of environmental damage is just incredible. Of course, it’s created employment for people, but waterways take years to get back to how they should be.
I know how difficult it can be when you come home from work and just want to shove something – anything – into the oven. But these figures should really make us pause and consider what can still be done to preserve and restore Earth’s precious resources.
We are all thinking human beings capable of making significant changes through our dinner plates, and we should absolutely feel a commitment to future generations whose lives will be shaped for better or worse by our everyday choices.
With plenty of perfectly delicious vegan and vegetarian dishes to try, many of us can make the effort to ensure our mealtimes leave less of a mark on our beautiful, irreplaceable planet.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.