Shifting the world’s reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is important, certainly. But the world’s best chance for achieving timely, disaster-averting climate change may actually be
a vegetarian dieteating less meat, according to a recent report in World Watch Magazine. (While I’d happily nudge the world toward a vegetarian diet, the report authors are more measured and simply suggest diets containing less meat.)
“The entire goal of today’s international climate objectives can be achieved by replacing just one-fourth of today’s least eco-friendly food products with better alternatives,” co-author Robert Goodland, a former World Bank Group environmental advisor wrote in an April 18 blog post on the report.
A widely cited 2006 report estimated that 18% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions were attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, pigs and poultry. However, analysis performed by Goodland, with co-writer Jeff Anhang, an environmental specialist at the World Bank Group’sInternational Finance Corporation, found that figure to now more accurately be 51%.
Consequently, state the pair, replacing livestock products with meat alternatives would “have far more rapid effects on greenhouse gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations — and thus on the rate the climate is warming — than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”
The pair describe several areas related to anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gases that have been overlooked or underestimated. For example, livestock breathing. They explain:
[L]ivestock (like automobiles) are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe. Moreover, while over time an equilibrium of CO2 may exist between the amount respired by animals and the amount photosynthesized by plants, that equilibrium has never been static. Today, tens of billions more livestock are exhaling CO2 than in preindustrial days, while Earth’s photosynthetic capacity (its capacity to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by absorbing it in plant mass) has declined sharply as forest has been cleared. (Meanwhile, of course, we add more carbon to the air by burning fossil fuels, further overwhelming the carbon-absorption system.)
The human population is expected to grow by 35% between 2006 and 2050, while livestock numbers are expected to double during the same period.
“This would make the amount of livestock-related emissions even more unacceptable than today’s perilous levels,” states the report. “It also means that an effective strategy must involved replacing livestock products with better alternatives, rather than substituting one meat product with another that has a somewhat lower carbon footprint.”
Food companies, Goodland and Anhang believe, have at least three incentives to respond to current risks in their industry. The first is that companies already suffer from disruptive climate events — floods, hurricanes, etc. — and so it’s in their best interests to not worsen the situation.
Second, they expect the demand for oil to rise to point of collapsing “many parts of today’s economy.” One way in which this will be particularly troublesome for livestock producers will be that crops grown for feed will be refocused on biofuel sources.
A third incentive is to offer “alternatives to livestock products that taste similar but are easier to cook, less expensive and healthier, and so are better than livestock products.”
Sales of just soy “analogs,” or alternatives to livestock products — such as ice cream, milk and cheese — totaled $1.9 billion in 2007. That same year, sales of U.S. meat and poultry products totaled $100 billion — which they optimistically suggest means there’s much room for growth.
“Worldwide, the market for meat and dairy analogs is potentially almost as big as the market for livestock products,” they write.
Still further motivation, they note: “Meat and dairy analog projects will not only slow climate change but also help ease the global food crisis, as it takes a much smaller quantity of crops to produce any given number of calories in the form of an analog than a livestock product.”
Plus, meat alternatives would help to alleviate the global water crisis, since livestock production uses a tremendous amount of water; it could have health and nutritional benefits; and, given that meat alternatives are more labor intensive, they would create both more jobs and more skilled jobs — while workers in the livestock industry could be retrained for jobs in meat-alternative industries.
“The case for change is no longer only a public policy or an ethical case, but is now also a business case,” write Goodland and Anhang. “We believe it is the best available business case among all industries to reverse climate change quickly.”