Climate change, water shortages, rising global pollution levels and food insecurity have made environmental sustainability the most pressing concern of our time. Improvements in production systems and agriculture, and advances in clean technology, will certainly help, but as the global population becomes more conscious of the issues facing us as a human race, we begin to ask ourselves what it is that we can do to help preserve our planet for centuries to come. More than in anything else, the answer to that lies in the diet choices we make.
I, for one, am an occasional “Pescatarian”. This may sound strange, but what that means is that I do not eat any meat, but I do on special occasions eat fish. I mainly survive on fruits, vegetables, soya protein products and non-meat animal products such as dairy and eggs. On top of the usual Omnivores, Vegetarians, Vegans (and of course the Near-Carnivores) among the human race, I have recently learned of some other “arianisms” that help to categorise our eating habits. One of my friends described herself as a Flexitarian, meaning she is flexible with her vegetarianism and occasionally chooses meat or fish, and another as a Locatarian who chooses only locally produced meat, fish or vegetable products. While a third could be described as a Poultretarian in that she eats no meat or fish except for chicken (but still indulges in other animal products such as cheese and eggs). I would categorise some as Travelatarians as they choose a vegetarian diet whilst travelling to avoid bad meats and resulting stomach bugs. There are also Micro- and Macro-biotarians, Fruitarians, Rawtarians, Lactotarians, Ovolactotarians, semi-Vegetarians and weird and wonderful combinations thereof.
Having said that, overall, the world per capita consumption of animal and fish products is rising at unprecedented rates (especially in the last decade or so) as countries reach higher levels of affluence (1). As I shall demonstrate, meat produced by modern industrial methods has by far the worst environmental effects, so, assuming that majority of readers will be keen meat-eaters who are not worried about the origin or organic status of their food, I will demonstrate what beneficial effects we could bring to the environment by making small changes in different ways.
A UK average citizen consumed 218 g of meat per day in 2002, whilst a typical American citizen ate around 430g of meat and fish per day (2). While meat consumption in advanced countries has stabilised, in all developing countries it is rapidly on the rise. Meat production is incredibly energy intensive and it is estimated that if the whole world reached US consumption levels (where food production uses 50% of all land area, 80% of fresh water and 17% of all fossil fuels) (3), then proven worldwide mineral oil reserves would last about 12 years in supplying food production and consumption alone (4). The emissions attributed to livestock production come not only from the growing of animal feed, but also methane from the animals´ digestive systems and production and transportation of feed and meat. In addition, there are adverse effects for humans as the use of (often preventative) antibiotics in animals promotes antibiotic resistance in humans (5). Non-meat animal products such as eggs and cheese have a lower impact but are still much more destructive than fruits and vegetables.
With some of the facts and figures laid out, let us now move on to the fun and interesting bit of seeing what effect it would have if you were to turn to one of the other “anianisms” described at the beginning, and making comparisons with plant-based diets, whilst highlighting some things to consider and dispelling some popular myths.
Option 1: Turn a Complete Pescatarian (replace all your meat calories with fish ones)
Since terrestrial products make up 99% of human food, turning pescatarian may seem like a good option as it takes pressure off land and water resources. However, there are some things in need of consideration when making your fish choices. In Western Europe trawler fishing is the most widespread method and global captured fisheries produced 96 million tonnes of wild fish in 2000 (6). To catch 1kg of fish requires 34 litres of fossil fuels and conserving it adds an extra 0.5-1.5 litres, so to produce 1 g of fish protein requires 14 times the fossil fuel input than to produce 1g of vegetable protein (7). Other methods are more sustainable (for example gillnet fishing needs only 0.65 times energy than veg protein), but, nevertheless, from a resource depletion perspective our oceans are in crises.
As a result, global aquaculture production (fish farms) has nearly doubled in the 1990s to 45mn tonnes produced in 2000 (8). A popular myth is that by choosing Scottish farmed salmon over wild Alaskan varieties you are helping to alleviate the pressure off wild stocks of fish. In reality, fish farms of carnivorous fish such as salmon and trout do more harm than good since 70% of all fish caught in the wild are now consumed by aquaculture and 4 kg of wild caught fish is required to produce just 1 kg of farmed salmon (9). Intensive fish farming is not the solution to stock depletion, rather better farming practices are. Do not despair however, as a fish lover there are several things you can do to help. You can pay more for sustainably caught wild fish such as line caught tuna and diver caught scallops, alternatively join the fight for more sustainable fish practices – believe it or not one of the best solutions brought forward by a recent WWF report to improve fish farms is indeed to make our salmon and trout vegetarian and feed them plant instead of fish oils (10).
Option 2: Save food miles and go Locatarian
The concept of Food-Miles has been somewhat of a buzz phrase with media and policy makers alike. Reducing how far a food product travels from its production to its consumption can help reduce the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions from it. A study in the US (11) indeed confirmed this and the researchers estimated that by going completely local would make an energy saving equivalent to driving 1,000 miles (approximately the length of New Zealand). It is worth bearing in mind that this is not always strictly the case. A study in the UK showed that an energy saving would only be made between driving to a local farm to pick up organic vegetables and having them delivered by UK´s largest organic veg-box distributor Riverford if the round trip to the shop and back was made in less than 6.7km (12).
Option 3: Go Organic
Organic farming has several advantages. Industrial livestock production in the US alone is responsible for 37% pesticide use, 50% antibiotic use and 33% of nitrogen and phosphorus release into freshwater sources (13). Antibiotics, hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides used for feed and other crops make farming and agriculture the largest sectoral source of water pollution in the world contributing to eutrophication, “dead zones” in coastal areas, human health problems and so on (14). Elimination of all these substances would have a hugely beneficial effect for human and natural health and help reverse soil degradation.
One study (15) calculated an aggregated Eco-points score taking into account various environmental and human health effects when looking at organic versus integrated (half organic, half normal) production methods. They found that organic fruit and vegetables had the best Eco-scores, followed by organic meat which outperformed integrated methods fruits and vegetables, with integrated method meat production having the worst effects. However, unless you are willing to also reduce your meat consumption, land availability issues would not be solved since organic farming is much less intensive with lower yields. Organic diets are more expensive, but if more people turned to organic simple laws of supply and demand dictate that, with time, as production increases prices will fall, thus benefiting everyone.
Option 4: Flexing your meat intake
Forgoing meat for just one day a week can have the same effect as going completely locatarian (16).
Option 5: Switch to Chicken
Although other meat than beef and non-meat animal products still have a larger environmental effect than vegetables (for water requirements of different products see graph 1), giving up meat for one day per weak to other animal products would save 760 miles (more than driving the entire length of Great Britain, which is only 710 miles). Completely switching from meat to other animal products and becoming a poultretarian would save around 5,340 driven miles (17), equivalent to driving across the whole of Russia from East to West.
Option 6: Giving it all up
Giving up meat, fish and animal products altogether is the most drastic lifestyle change you could make with the biggest effects. In comparison to an entirely plant-based diet, a meat diet:
- requires up to 17 times more land, 26 times more water, and 20 times more fossil fuels;
- emits 7 times more acidifying compounds (sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides and ammonia);
- emits 6 times the amounts of biocides (pesticides and disinfectants applied to crops that lead to eutrophication), and
- emits 100 times more copper (from feed and fertilizer) (18).
For vegan diets, the externalities associated with farming (such as cost and treatment of pesticides, soil erosion, pathogens and human health problems) are estimated to be a third that of meat eaters (19). Moving from a meat-eating diet where you consume meat everyday to a totally vegan diet could save 8,332 driving miles per year (20). This is equivalent to driving the length of South America and back: from Punta Gallinas in Colombia in the North to Cape Horn of Chile in the South, so put down your hamburger and start dreaming about the road.
Why should we care?
Agriculture is one of the biggest causes of deforestation and, thus, loss of biodiversity and increased threat of species extinction (currently at 50-500 times faster than background fossil record rates) (21). If we continue at current rates, another 10 billion hectares of natural ecosystems would be converted to agriculture by 2050 (22). This type of land use change is the single largest contributor to emissions in developing countries, making agriculture responsible for 18% of all GHG emissions in the world (74% of which are in Developing Countries) – which is larger than the whole of the transport sector (23). Intensive farming practices have added to soil degradation so much so that 17% of Earth´s vegetated land in now classified as degraded (24). In addition, agriculture consumed 90% of global freshwater during the last century (25) and because renewable freshwater stocks are very low, demand from the projected additional 2.3bn people by 2050 (26) will need to be met from existing irrigated land. This is particularly a problem since 64% of the world´s population is projected to live in water-stressed areas by 2025 (27). All of this is happening while additional pressures on agriculture are coming from new projects such as carbon sequestration and the rising global demand for biofuel crops.
Meat consumption is projected to increase by around 70% between 2005 and 2050 (or an additional 200 mn tonnes), Since already over a third of all world´s cereal stocks are used as animal feed (soya and others), and feed crop takes up 70% of the world´s agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet (28), industrial agriculture and meat consumption are inextricably linked, thus, guaranteeing our future partly depends on the choices we make.
So why change now?
Governments of various countries have in the past restricted freedoms for the greater good, like Singapore restricting fertility in the 1960s and 1970s due to overpopulation and reversing policy from anti-natalist to selective-pro-natalist (to encourage the better educated segments of the population to have three or more children) due to threat of a population crisis from the mid 1980´s onwards (29). Similarly, China today operates a strict one child only policy to control population. So too are some researchers predicting that “under the current pressures imposed by overpopulation, resource scarcity and overconsumption, absolute dietary freedom could soon … become a luxury” (30). Others are already making estimations for a global target to restrict production and consumption globally to 90g of animal protein per person per day with no more than 50g of that coming from red meats or from ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, and other digastric grazers) (31) in order to achieve sustainability. This will represent a drastic change from the current consumption in the west (from 430g per day for the average American and 218g for an average Brit).
Increasingly, researchers and policy makers are calling for food consumption to be at the top of our environmental agenda. With even Mike Tyson (a fighter famous for biting off another boxer´s ear during a fight) turning vegan in 2010 (32), it is time for us to all do our bit for nature and for global health while we still have the power to choose.
Can our diets impact the world? Leave your thoughts below.
Ioulia Fenton is the food and agriculture lead at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.
(**) Based on data from www.waterfootprint.org – you can also calculate your own water footprint on the site
(1). If you are interested in the topic you can do your own calculations from the huge amount of annual series data on all food and drink products in all countries available from 1961-2007 for view from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation´s (FAO) website at: http://faostat.fao.org/site/368/default.aspx#ancor
(2). Deckers J. (2010) “Should the Consumption of Farmed Animal Products be Restricted, and if so, by how much?”, Food Policy, Vol. 16, Issue 1, pp. 57-72
(3). Pimentel D. & Pimentel M. (2003) “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the Environment” AmericanJournal of Clinical Nutrition, Supplement to Volume 78, pp. 660S–663S
(4). Pimentel D. et al (2009) cited in McMichael A. J., Powles J. W., Butler, C. D. & Uauy R. (2007) “Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health”, The Lancet, Oct 6, Vol.370, Issue 9594, pp.1253-1263
(5). Fanelli D. (2007) “Meat is Murder on the Environment”, New Scientist, Issue 2613, 18th July 2007
(6). Tuominan T. R. & Esmark M. (2003) “Food For Thought: The Use of Marine Resources in Fish Feed”, WWF Report 2/03, Available Online at: http://assets.panda.org/downloads/foodforthoug.pdf
(7). McMichael A. J., Powles J. W., Butler, C. D. & Uauy R. (2007) “Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health”, The Lancet, Oct 6, Vol.370, Issue 9594, pp.1253-1263
(8). Tuominan T. R. & Esmark M. (2003) “Food For Thought: The Use of Marine Resources in Fish Feed”, WWF Report 2/03, Available Online at: http://assets.panda.org/downloads/foodforthoug.pdf)
(11). Weber C. L.& Matthews H. S. (2008) “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 42, Issue 10, pp. 3508-3513. Available for download online at: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/es702969f
(12). Coley D., Howard, M. & Winter M. (2009) “Local food, food miles and carbon emissions: A comparison of farm shop and mass distribution approaches”, Food Policy, Vol. 34, Issue 2, pp. 150-55
(13.) FAO (2006) “Livestock´s long shadow: environmental issues and options”, Available for download at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
(15). McMichael A. J., Powles J. W., Butler, C. D. & Uauy R. (207) “Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health”, The Lancet, Oct 6, Vol.370, Issue 9594, pp.1253-1263
(16). Weber C. L.& Matthews H. S. (2008) “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States”, Environmental Science & Technology, Vol. 42, Issue 10, pp. 3508-3513. Available for download online at: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/es702969f
(17). Figure for a typical American, Ibid.
(18). Using the upper estimates from study by McMichael et al (2007)
(19). Deckers J. (2010) “Should the Consumption of Farmed Animal Products be Restricted, and if so, by how much?”, Food Policy, Vol. 16, Issue 1, pp. 57-72
(20). Figures for US consumption – Ibid.
(21). FAO (2006) “Livestock´s long shadow: environmental issues and options”, Available for download at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
(22). Tilman, D. (1999) cited in Khan S. & Hanjra M. A. (2009) “Footprintsof water and energy inputs in food production – Global perspectives”, Food Policy, Vol. 34, pp. 130–140.
(23). FAO (2010) “Climate Change and its Impact on Agricultural, Forestry and Fisheries Production in Latin America and the Caribbean”, Conference Paper, 31st Regional Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean, Panama City, Panama, 26 to 30 April 2010. Available online at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/meeting/018/k7837e.pdf
(24). Khan S. & Hanjra M. A. (2009) “Footprints of water and energy inputs in food production – Global perspectives”, Food Policy, Vol. 34, pp. 130–140
(25). Shiklomanov I. A. (2000) cited in Khan & Hanjra (2009)
(26). FAO (2009) “Global Agriculture Towards 2050”, How to Feed The World 2050 Series Paper, Available online at: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_Global_Agriculture.pdf(27). FAO (2006) “Livestock´s long shadow: environmental issues and options”, Available for download at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
(29). For an interesting discussion about the effects of these policies see Yap M. T. (2003) “Fertility and Population Policy: the Singapore Experience“, Journal of Population and Social Security: Population Study, Supplement to Volume 1, pp. 643-658. Available online at: http://www.ipss.go.jp/webj-ad/WebJournal.files/population/2003_6/24.Yap.pdf
(30). Reijnders L. & Soret S. (2003)“Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices”, Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Supplement to Vol. 78, pp. 664S–668S, quote from p. 668S
(31). McMichael A. J., Powles J. W., Butler, C. D. & Uauy R. (2007) “Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health”, The Lancet, Oct 6, Vol.370, Issue 9594, pp.1253-1263 (32.) For an amusing article on the speculation around Tyson´s motivations behind the conversion see Sterling C. (2010) “Mike Tyson, VEGAN: Ploy For PETA’s Sake?”, The Huffington Post, Posted on 13th May, 2010: 12:20pm. Available online at:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/13/mike-tyson-vegan-ploy-for_n_575062.html