January 26, 2010
Moves from various pressure groups and vegetarian celebs to promote reduced meat consumption as one means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions raises a number of important questions. Many sceptics would put such action in the category of futile gestures.
Scientific evidence would suggest that a universal ‘meatless Monday’ would make only a minimal difference to the GHG output of the world’s meat industry. The suggestion does however raise a number of important questions. What is obvious is that emissions from millions of ruminant cattle, sheep and goats primarily, but also indirectly, from pigs and poultry must be significant. What is not obvious is the scale of those emissions or what measures would be effective in reducing them were it decided desirable to do so. A further relevant question is; do people want to reduce meat consumption in preference to some other self-denying GHG reduction measure? Most importantly, the proposition raises the question of political and economic choice: should meat or any other food production be reduced to cut GHG output rather than reducing output from other major emitters such as air transport or the manufacture of consumer goods?
Extreme analyses suggest that the livestock sector could be responsible for more than half of total world AGHG emissions; more moderate estimates put the share at less than 20%. Clearly, such basic questions as what emissions should be included in the calculation and how emissions are calculated are crucial to finding the right answer and prescribing the right solutions. In calculating the meat industry’s total GHG output, the relationship between livestock production and crop growing is also highly important.
It has been suggested that one target for reduction would be to reduce consumption in developed countries so that it matches levels projected for those living in developing countries by 2050. This is anticipated to be 44kg of meat and 78kg of milk per person per year. Globally, this would cut meat consumption by 15 % and milk consumption by 22%, according to calculations by the Food Climate Research Network.
This would mean halving the average per capita meat consumption in developed countries (current average 80KG per capita, a 60% reduction in some EU countries such as Belgium and Germany and reducing US consumption by 80%. However, even these cuts would not be sufficient, as global demand is expected to be 70% higher for meat and 45% for milk, compared to 2000 levels by 2050, as demand from developing and transitional economy countries increases.
Even to stabilise consumption at current average levels would mean that by 2050, world average per capita consumption would have to be held at 25kg of meat and 53kg of milk a year, or the equivalent of current developing world consumption. However, even this extreme scenario would not significantly reduce GHG emissions, unless there were greater emission-reducing technical and managerial improvements.Brian Gardner