The three biggest meat companies in the world emit more greenhouse gases than France and its 67 million inhabitants. Yes. Our diets have a huge impact on climate. The good news is: you can easily change this. And it doesn’t necessarily mean going vegan. You don’t need to go that far if you can’t imagine life without meatballs. A plant-based diet once a week is already helpful to avoid dangerous climate change. And you also do your health a favor.
Behind a juicy beef burger, there is a global supply chain with huge carbon emissions. Although we already knew that, now we can have a more precise idea of their magnitude.
The top three players of the meat industry combined – JBS, Cargill and Tyson – have emitted more greenhouse gases in 2016 than the entire France and almost as much as energy titans, such as Shell or BP. This is part of a new study from the non-profit Grain, that sheds a light on the negative impact of meat production on the planet.
If the top 20 meat and dairy companies were a country, they would be the world’s seventh largest greenhouse gases emitter. It’s huge. Livestock production alone accounts for nearly 15% of global GHG emissions, which is more than the transportation sector.
The fact that our diets have a dramatic impact on the planet’s climate is troubling. But it can be, at some extent, viewed as good news, as we – as consumers – can help to reduce that burden. Of course, governments, international organisations, businesses and the civil society have much to do in order to avoid dangerous climate change. And they ought to. So do we. Cutting the consumption of red meat is a good way to start. And that is what I am trying, by going towards a more plant-based diet.
Soon it will be too late
Catastrophic. That’s how the Head of UN Environment, Erik Solheim, described the gap between what needs to be done to avoid dangerous climate change and what governments committed to do so far. His statement took place on the eve of COP 23. In November, the last UN Climate Change Conference ended with limited progress on how to achieve Paris agreement’s goals.
Currently we are on track for 3ºC of global warming, much higher than the 2ºC goal set at COP 21. And the projection is quickly becoming reality. In 2017, thermometers already register a 1.1ºC rise on the average global temperature compared to the pre-industrial era. It’s very likely that 2017 will be one of the three hottest years on record – the other two being 2015 and 2016 – with many extreme weather events including disastrous hurricanes, floods, heatwaves and droughts.
When you replace meat with veggies, nuts and legumes you have greater health benefits at the same time you reduce your ecological footprint
On the recent “warning to humanity”, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries stated that “soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory”. The first manifesto alike was published in 1992, when scientists called on humankind to reduce environmental destruction in order to avoid a “vast human misery”.
Twenty-five years later, scientists observe that, with exception of stabilising ozone layer, we failed to respond to foreseen environmental challenges, and most of them are getting far worse. “Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production — particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption”, the experts advert.
An important outcome of COP 23, though, is the end of years of deadlock on talks related to agriculture. Countries finally agreed to work on the links between agriculture and climate change. “A major step” to enable agricultural climate action, said the Director-General of FAO, José Graziano da Silva.
Good for your health, good for the environment
So let’s do our good yet small contribution to climate action. By eating less meat and dairy products, we lower our carbon footprint. On an individual level, joining a movement like the campaign Meat Free Monday can help to reduce meat consumption. It is simple: every Monday you try the endless possibilities of the vegetarian cuisine or – why not? – the vegan one.
This approach could also be applied to policy-making on a national scale. Nicolas Hulot, the French Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition, told in a recent interview that he wants schools’ canteens of France to serve a vegetarian menu once a week. “It’s also a matter of education”, he said. Indeed.
One day a week can make a significant difference: it means a reduction of 0.4 tons on your annual carbon footprint, states the Conservation International. Just to give an idea, if the entire world’s population became vegan, it would cut food-related emissions by 70%, according to a 2050 scenario by The University of Oxford.
You can also use WWF’s carbon footprint calculator to estimate the sum of all your CO2 emissions per year. The count takes into account factors such as what you eat, the way you move around, your energy consumption and how much you recycle.
By eating less red meat, you also help to preserve biodiversity and save water. And it is good for your health too.
Many of the world’s leading health organisations encourage a reduction of meat intake. A Harvard Medical School study states that eating red meat too often can shorten your life by raising the risk of cancer and other health issues, like cardiovascular disease. You can have a greater benefit when you substitute meat with equivalent servings of more healthful protein sources such as fish, nuts, legumes, and whole grains, points out the study.
A personal journey towards a mostly plant-based diet
Joining the Meat Free Monday campaign helped me to dramatically reduce my meat intake. I started giving up all kinds of meat on Mondays and when I realized I was not only going meat-free Mondays, but I also meat-free Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays… Now I can pass weeks without beef, chicken or fish.
Increasing my intake of high-protein legumes, such as lentils, beans and chickpeas was key for me to adopt a more plant-based diet. When I have meat cravings, which is becoming less frequent, I go for it. I try to listen and respect what my body needs. I don’t enjoy drinking milk anymore, for example, but I eat eggs and cheese quite frequently. I struggle to do my part, while avoiding to be radical.
For the moment, it’s still hard for me to imagine going egg and cheese free. I reckon I would like to go vegan at some point. But it would be a bit complicated in my case. I have a health condition that restrains my consumption of sugar, which includes fruits and simple carbs. On the other hand, I need to eat more protein than an average person.
Different metabolisms make it impossible to come up with one-size-fits-all diet. But everyone that has the privilege of choosing what to eat can reduce her or his meat intake. What about you? What are your ways to reduce your ecological footprint? Are you keen to take climate action by reducing your meat consumption? What could help you to adopt a more plant-based diet?