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Dietary Changes May Ease Climate Change

There's a growing worldwide demand for meat.
There's a growing worldwide demand for meat.
Some scientists are advising a dietary approach to climate change. They say eating less meat can mitigate the effects of rising temperatures. However, the recommendation is being made at a time when meat consumption worldwide is on the rise.

Researchers at Britain’s University of Exeter say a rapidly rising population and a growing demand for meat is a bad combination when it comes to climate change. They say lifestyle changes, recycling plant material and wasting less food can help prevent – what they call – ecological disaster.

Lots of hungry people

“With a growing human population that’s almost certainly going to be around the 9 and a half billion mark in the middle of this century – and with the trends towards on average eating more meat – then the real danger that we have is we’re going to almost literally run out of land for food production and natural ecosystems in particular,” said Professor Tim Lenton, co-author of the research.

He said the challenge is to continually improve land use efficiency.

“If we weren’t making any technological improvements in the efficiency of farming and food production, and especially meat production, then we calculated that the amount of land we’d need to meet the food demand in 2050 could be something like 9 billion hectares or nearly 90 percent of the productive land of the planet and nearly twice what we farm on and have pasture on today,” he said.

A growing demand for meat is not just coming from Western nations, but emerging economies like China and India.

“The trend heading if you like in a Western direction is perhaps understandable for those of us already enjoying quite a bit of meat in our diets. It is putting extra pressure on the planet and on the land surface. But the good side of it is that the increasing demands so far for meat from the emerging economies is being met largely by the most efficient forms of meat. That is eating pork and chicken rather than eating beef,” said Lenton.

However, efficient forms of meat production can mean mass production farms where animals are raised in very tight quarters. Critics describe these as cruel and inhumane and it’s one of the arguments made in favor of vegetarianism.

Lenton said, “If the limits of the Earth’s land surface have to push us towards these more intensive means of producing meat, they certainly raise potentially significant animal welfare concerns.”

The research describes beef as being the least energy efficient meat source. Lenton says, however, producing meat more efficiently is one way to deal with greenhouse gasses. Another way is simply to eat less meat, which the researchers recommend.

“If we could somewhat stem the rising enthusiasm for meat eating in the world or reverse that trend then that would make a big contribution. We’d be talking about just going back to the kind of global average diet in the 1970s or the 1980s. But for Westerners on average that would mean a big change, potentially halving of meat intake and that’s not something that we’ve really culturally come to grips with I think,” he said.

The University of Exeter study also recommends recycling plant waste to help rebalance the global carbon cycle. That includes trapping carbon in the land and not releasing it into the atmosphere.

“Best way to do this,” said Lenton, “may well be to turn it into charcoal and add the charcoal back into the soils of the farm, which is being described as bio-char in the lingo, but is for poor soils, for example, a way of improving soil quality, [improving] water retention in the soil and nutrient retention.

The research appears in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.