Eat less meat if you care about climate change

Altering your diet can have an immense impact on your carbon footprint
Last Updated 24 June 2019, 12:10 IST

Climate-change is finally front-and-center as an existential risk to humanity. But can the likes of you and me do something about it? It may sound deceptively simple, but altering our diets to give up or reduce meat can have an immense impact on our carbon footprint, reduce pollution, preserve the environment, and slow global warming. Here’s how the research stacks up.

First up, a look at where India stands on greenhouse gas emissions. According to The International Energy Agency, India is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only China and the USA. Nine percent of the more than 2000 million metric tons of greenhouse gases we emit each year can be put down to agriculture, food, and land use. Food’s carbon footprint is its foodprint – greenhouse gas emissions produced by growing, rearing, farming, processing, transporting, storing, cooking and disposing the food we eat. Greenhouse gases emitted during the process are a major contributor to climate change and rising global temperatures.

Although India is on track to achieve some of the goals pledged in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, we must not just pride ourselves on this. It’s time to doubledown on reducing our emissions.

Unequivocally, if more people adopt vegetarianism or veganism, or simply eat less meat, less often, greenhouse gas emissions caused by food consumption would plummet.

One way to do this is to examine our foodprint and evaluate the different ways to reduce it. “Most people don’t think of the consequences of food on climate change,” says Tim Benton, a food security expert at the University of Leeds. “But just eating a little less meat right now might make things a whole lot better for our children and grandchildren.”

According to research conducted by The Environmental Working Group, a US-based agriculture non-profit, animal products (meat, cheese, and eggs) have a disproportionately higher carbon footprint than plant crops (fruit, vegetables, beans, and nuts), which have significantly lower carbon footprints.

One large-scale study in the UK in 2014 found that the carbon footprint of a vegetarian diet is about half that of a non-vegetarian diet, with a vegan diet coming in at around one-third the carbon footprint of a non-vegetarian diet. Unequivocally, if more people adopt vegetarianism or veganism, or simply eat less meat, less often, greenhouse gas emissions caused by food consumption would plummet.

The changes we make in our diets today will make us healthier and save us money, while simultaneously ensuring that Zoomers and future generations do not live in an unpredictable world, in want of natural resources, and punctuated by recurring climate catastrophes.

Additionally, food, chiefly livestock, occupies a lot of space – a source of both greenhouse gas emissions due to land conversion, and of biodiversity loss. Of the world’s approximately five billion hectares (12 billion acres) of agricultural land, 68 per cent is used for livestock. If all of us went vegetarian, we would attempt to allocate a majority of that pastureland to the restoration of grasslands and forests- capturing carbon and reducing our own emissions.

Converting former pastures to native habitats would likely also be a boon to biodiversity. A UN report published earlier this year says that one million species face extinction, primarily due to habitat and ecosystem destruction engendered by climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

There could be other benefits to cutting out meat from our diets. Consider this: India is home to 20 percent of the world's cattle population and 11 per cent of the world goat and sheep populations – animals who are bred for meat or dairy production. These ruminant animals transfer approximately 15.3 million tons of methane – which traps 25 times as much heat as carbon dioxide does – into the atmosphere via flatulence every year.

Now, India ranks towards the bottom of the Global Hunger Index with almost 200 million people undernourished and 80 million people without access to safe water. Yet, one-third of the India’s crops are used to feed these animals. Imagine, if dairy cow feed such as soybeans, barley, and oats could be used to nourish the almost 800 million people the world over who lack adequate food to lead healthy lives.

Beyond individual change, the animal advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, advocates for the government imposition of a meat tax as an intervention to discourage meat consumption. Perhaps this is extreme. But the climate crisis is severe and urgent – experts believe it will present its most ravaging effects to us in less than 30 years. We must be afraid and use this fear to incite comprehensive reforms in our institutions and our own behaviour.

(Param Vaswani is a student, activist, and writer. He is currently an intern at Deccan Herald.)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 24 June 2019, 11:35 IST)

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