Study: Meat consumption is detrimental to the planet

A huge industry has been built around diets. Most of its products are designed to help people lose weight, build muscle, or be healthier.

But as the world’s population continues to grow, scientists are racing to develop a diet that can feed 10 billion people by 2050.

According to a new report published in the British medical journal The Lancet, people are urged to eat a mostly plant-based diet and cut back on meat, dairy and sugar as much as possible. The report was written by a group of 30 scientists from around the world who study nutrition and food policy. For three years, they have researched and discussed this topic with the aim of developing recommendations that could be adopted by governments to solve the problem of subsistence for a growing world population.

“Even a small increase in red meat or dairy consumption would make this goal difficult or even impossible to achieve,” the report’s summary says.

The authors of the report reached their conclusions by weighing the various side effects of food production, including greenhouse gases, water and crop use, nitrogen or phosphorus from fertilizers, and the threat to biodiversity due to agricultural expansion. The authors of the report argue that if all these factors are controlled, then the amount of gases that cause climate change can be reduced, and there would be enough land left to feed a growing world population.

According to the report, meat and sugar consumption worldwide should be reduced by 50%. According to Jessica Fanso, author of the report and professor of food policy and ethics at Johns Hopkins University, meat consumption will decline at different rates in different parts of the world and in different segments of the population. For example, meat consumption in the US should be markedly reduced and replaced by fruits and vegetables. But in other countries facing food problems, meat already makes up only about 3% of the population’s diet.

“We will be in a desperate situation if no action is taken,” says Fanso.

Recommendations to reduce meat consumption are, of course, no longer new. But according to Fanso, the new report offers different transition strategies.

The authors called this part of their work “The Great Food Transformation” and described various strategies in it, ranging from the least active to the most aggressive, excluding consumer choice.

“I think it’s hard for people to start the transition in the current environment because the current incentives and political structures don’t support it,” says Fanso. The report notes that if the government changed its policy on which farms to subsidize, this could be one tactic to overhaul the food system. This would change the average food prices and thereby encourage consumers.

“But whether the whole world will support this plan is another question. The current governments are unlikely to want to take steps in this direction,” says Fanso.

Emission controversy

Not all experts agree that plant-based diets are the key to food security. Frank Mitlener, a scientist at the University of California, opined that meat is disproportionately linked to climate change-causing emissions.

“It is true that livestock has an impact, but the report sounds as if it is the main contributor to climate impacts. But the main source of carbohydrate emissions is the use of fossil fuels,” Mitlener says.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the burning of fossil fuels for industry, electricity and transportation accounts for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture accounts for 9% of emissions, and livestock production for approximately 4%.

Mitlener also disagrees with the Council’s method for determining the amount of greenhouse gases produced by livestock, and argues that too much mass fraction was assigned to methane in the calculations. Compared to carbon, methane remains in the atmosphere for a relatively short period of time, but plays a large role in warming the oceans.

Reducing food waste

Although the dietary recommendations proposed in the report have been criticized, the drive to reduce food waste is becoming more widespread. In the US alone, almost 30% of all food is wasted.

Waste reduction strategies are outlined in the report for both consumers and manufacturers. Better storage and contamination detection technologies can help businesses reduce food waste, but consumer education is also an effective strategy.

For many, changing eating habits and reducing food waste is a daunting prospect. But Katherine Kellogg, author of 101 Ways to Eliminate Waste, says it only costs her $250 a month.

“There are so many ways to use our food without it becoming waste, and I think most people just don’t know about them. I know how to cook every part of a vegetable, and I realize that this is one of my most effective habits,” says Kellogg.

Kellogg, however, lives in California, close to areas with affordable farmers’ markets. For other communities living in so-called food deserts—regions where grocery stores or markets are not available—access to fresh fruits and vegetables can be difficult.

“All the actions we recommend are available now. This is not the technology of the future. It’s just that they haven’t reached a large scale yet,” Fanso sums up.

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