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Save the Climate, Eat Less Red Meat

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Jessica Fanzo is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of global food and agricultural policy and ethics at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, the Berman Institute of Bioethics and the Department of International Health of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. She is on sabbatical for one year to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome.

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Shreya Das is a research assistant with the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University and a fellow in Nutrition and Food Systems at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

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The way we eat is going to have to change — that is, if we are to preserve a livable climate on Earth. A new international study makes this clear. Over the next three decades, the food system’s impact on the environment stands to at least double if humanity carries on eating the way it does now. The negative effects include pollution and species loss, but the greatest threat by far is posed by greenhouse-gas emissions from growing, processing, packaging and transporting food.

More than two-thirds of those food-related emissions come from meat production, according to the 23 researchers involved in the study — led by Marco Springmann of Oxford University (and including Jessica Fanzo). Hence, their critical recommendation: Consumers, especially those living in certain high-income countries where meat is a significant part of the daily diet, are going to have cut back and adopt a more plant-based “flexitarian” diet.This approach will hardly be easy. While people in rich countries often eat more meat than they need, people in poor countries, especially children, are not yet getting enough of it. Some have so little access to animal-source foods, including meat and dairy, they are chronically undernourished. Nevertheless, it should be possible to steer the world toward what scientists consider a sustainable diet by working within the context of individual economies.

Cutting back on animal-sourced foods is more effective in improving health and the environment in high-income countries than in poorer ones, research shows. In places where people eat relatively little meat and dairy products, a less aggressive approach to dietary change is suitable. But even in these countries, improvements in land and water use can lessen environmental stresses, and steps can be taken to reduce food waste.Governments, of course, will have to help nudge dietary change and encourage sustainable food production, even as they continue to support economic growth and public health. At a minimum, they’ll need to give farmers incentives to adopt sustainable practices, and regulate the use of land and fresh water required for agriculture.For significant change to happen in any country, the food and beverage industry will need to be persuaded to revise its offerings to deliver healthy choices within environmental limits. By diversifying the foods it produces, it could help steer consumers in affluent countries toward a more plant-based diet, and help people in low-income countries achieve balanced diets in line with their national dietary guidelines — that is, a healthful mix of fruits and vegetables with enough meat and dairy for adequate protein.

Companies will also need to stop wasting so much of the food they produce. About a third of all food is either lost before reaching markets or is thrown out by households. A few organizations are working on tools to help businesses keep track of food loss, and reduce it by operating more efficiently.It would help if consumers — as well as governments looking to minimize greenhouse-gas emissions — knew the true costs of all foods, including the hidden costs to the environment. The food industry and outside scientists need to develop accurate ways of measuring those costs.

Ultimately, if people worldwide who heavily rely on meat switch to a more plant-based diet, they could potentially decrease food-related greenhouse-gas emissions by almost half by 2050.People reluctant to cut back might find it persuasive to learn that eating less meat, especially less red meat, could help them live longer. Red and processed meat-heavy diets are associated with certain kinds of cancer and with health problems such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Consider the findings from one of Springmann’s earlier studies: If everyone in world became vegetarian, annual deaths would fall by 7.3 million.But the climate challenge alone should be urgent enough to get people’s attention and cooperation. Look no further than the recent warning from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the world is on a path to dangerous warming within the next 22 years. This emergency call to action needs to include a serious reconsideration of the food on our plates. Protecting the climate means getting everyone to make sure meat becomes only a small part of the meal.This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.To contact the authors of this story:Jessica Fanzo at jfanzo1@jhu.eduShreya Das at shreyadas2289@gmail.comTo contact the editor responsible for this story:Mary Duenwald at