Reaching the peak of the livestock production within the next decade is highly required to tackle the climate emergency, scientists have warned. The reduction in meat and dairy consumption will not only cut methane but also allow forests to thrive.
All the governments, except the most impoverished countries, have been urged to set a date for “peak meat.” Animal agriculture is globally a significant and fast-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Not only cattle and sheep emit methane in large amounts, but forests are also getting destroyed to create pasture and grow the grains for intensively feeding reared animals.
The scientists globally agree on the fact that limiting global heating to 1.5C requires the removal of huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While 80% of farmland and even more are used for livestock, just 18% of food calories get produced from that.
Instead of relying on meat and dairy, if plant-based diets are consumed, it would free up land to get back to natural forest. As per the researchers, currently, it is the best option available to store large amounts of carbon.
The changes like this in global agriculture are only one part of the urgent action needed to address the climate crisis, the researchers emphasize. Further cutting fossil fuel use is vital as effective action in other sectors, such as in transport.
The researchers call on countries in a letter to the Lancet Planetary Health journal to “declare a timeframe for peak livestock,” after which production would not increase. Negotiators are attending the UN climate summit in Madrid and expect to make progress towards ambitious new climate pledges in 2020.
“Countries should be looking for peak livestock within the next 10 years,” said Helen Harwatt, a fellow at Harvard Law School in the US and lead author of the letter. “This is because we need steep and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, as we are reaching dangerous temperature tipping points.”
Research shows that meat, milk, and egg production had increased from 758m tonnes in 1990 to 1,247m tonnes in 2017.
“Food demand is expected to increase massively as our population expands toward 10 billion,” said Prof Matthew Betts at Oregon State University, US, and another author of the letter. “Reducing human demand for resource-intensive animal protein would considerably slow the rate of global forest loss, with huge benefits for biodiversity and ecosystem services, in addition to carbon storage.”
More than 50 leading experts supported the letter, including Prof Pete Smith, at the University of Aberdeen, UK, a senior author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on land use and climate change, published in August.
“Ruminant meat is 10 to 100 times more damaging to the climate than plant-based food,” he said. “As a planet, we need to transition away from a dependence on livestock, just as we need to transition away from fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of hitting the goals of the Paris climate agreement. Livestock numbers need to peak very soon and thereafter decline substantially.”
According to Smith, individual governments have to set their own targets for peak livestock. “However, given the urgency of the climate emergency, this will need to be over the coming decade for sure,” he added.
“But the transition will need to be managed fairly to allow citizens to change diets and for farmers, producers and agri-food chains to diversify. In poor countries, where over 800 million people are still undernourished, priorities obviously differ.”
Prof Sir Ian Boyd, until recently the chief scientific adviser to the UK government on the environment, food and farming, and Walter Willett at Harvard University, who led the work on the first science-based planetary health diet, published this year, are also among the other supporters of the letter.
The 2018 research by Prof Ron Milo at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, who also backed the letter, shows, out of the total weights of the world’s mammals, 60% are livestock, 36% are humans, and only 4% are wild mammals.
Harwatt said, making changes that are needed to achieve peak meat was feasible, as farming could change faster compared to other sectors such as power stations where infrastructure had lifespans of decades.
She recognized that significant changes in behavior are required for much lower levels of meat consumption but said: “I see many more vegan options today [in the UK] that were not there even a year ago.
“We’re fully aware that our call requires large-scale change across society and isn’t something that can be achieved overnight or without challenges.”
The impacts of climate change would be huge on society, and reaching peak meat would help limit the damage, reduce ill-health and help wildlife, Harwatt said. “This isn’t hardship,” she said.