Want To Stop Climate Change? Eat Less Meat
April 16, 2012

Want To Stop Climate Change? Eat Less Meat

Lawrence LeBlond for RedOrbit.com

A proposed reduction in the world´s carbon emissions set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) can only be met if the developed world cuts down meat consumption by 50 percent per person, according to new research from a Massachusetts-based climate initiative organization.

Scientists from the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), located in Falmouth, Mass., found in a new study that the world needs to not only cut meat consumption by 50 percent, but to also cut emissions by an equal amount by 2050, if we are to reduce the most dangerous of greenhouse gases (nitrous oxide - N2O) in our atmosphere.

N2O is the third highest contributor of climate change behind carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4); however, it is considered much more potent due to the fact it is an essential element in food production, meaning it cannot be controlled quite as easily as CO2 and CH4.

One of the top offenders of potent nitrous oxide is fertilizer used to grow crops in the agricultural industry. But because farming is much needed to feed the world´s growing population, which is projected to reach 9 billion by mid-century, it will be a difficult challenge to try to reduce the carbon footprint farming leaves on the world´s climate.

The study, led by Dr. Eric Davidson, President and Senior Scientist at WHRC, demonstrates the magnitude of changes that are needed to reverse the ongoing threat of global warming. The paper is published today in the IOP Publishing´s Environmental Research Letters.

Still, Davidson and colleagues said the world will have to cut fertilizer usage by 50 percent and also persuade consumers to rely less on the amount of meat consumed if we are to change the climate forecast. That will be a tough sell, Davidson admits. Meat is a widely used staple in the developed world, and in developing countries, such as India and China, meat consumption is on the rise as well, a frightening scenario for global warming, as the two countries combined make up more than a quarter the world´s population.

“I think there are huge challenges in convincing people in the west to reduce portion sizes or the frequency of eating meat. That is part of our culture right now,” Davidson told The Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg.

In order to reduce global emissions of N2O, it will be necessary to apply certain changes to the food production process. Scientist have focused more on agriculture´s impact on climate change over the past few years, and the problem of growing enough food for the ballooning world population.

The IPCC, the UN´s climate body, makes it clear that deep cuts to nitrous oxide emissions are needed to help stave off dangerous climate change.

Growing feed crops for cattle and pigs produces more N2O emissions than crops that go directly into the human food chain. The climate panel states that eating less meat would reduce the demand for fertilizer as well as reduce the amount of manure produced, which raises the levels of one of the other climate offenders, methane.

Davidson suggested that changes in current farming practice -- such as growing winter ground cover crops -- would help absorb nitrogen and prevent its release into the atmosphere.

“We have the technical know-how and the tools to greatly improve efficiencies of fertilizer use in agriculture, although several economic and political impediments often stand in the way of their adoption,” he said in a statement.

In a draft of the IPCC´s Fifth Assessment Report, four representative concentration pathways (RCPs) were adopted, representing possible means of reductions for a number of greenhouse gases.

In evaluating the scale of the changes needed to meet the predicted N2O pathways, Davidson found that three of the less aggressive scenarios could be met by reducing meat consumption, improving agricultural practices, or reducing emissions from industry. The fourth and most aggressive scenario, where atmospheric N2O concentrations stabilize by 2050, can only be met if a 50 percent reduction, or improvement, is achieved for each of the above.

Davidson and colleagues made their calculations by relying on data provided by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which assume the global population will reach 8.9 billion by 2050 and the daily calorific intake per capita will increase to 3130 kcal. They also assume that the average meat consumption of each person in the developed world will rise from 170 lbs. per year in 2002 to 195 lbs. per year in 2030 and from 62 lbs. per year in 2002 to 82 lbs. kg per year for each person in the developing world.

Davidson compared the likelihood of reducing meat consumption by 50 percent to that of smoking. “If you had asked me 30 years ago if smoking would be banned in bars, I would have laughed and said that would be impossible in my lifetime, and yet it has come true. Similarly, there would be beneficial health benefits for most Americans and western Europeans to stop ℠supersizing´ and rather to reduce portion sizes of red meat.”

Davidson said such changes are dependent “not only on education about diet, but also on prices of meat. Some agricultural economists think that the price of meat is going to go way up, so that per capita consumption will go down, but those are highly uncertain projections.”

Davidson is not suggesting people give up meat entirely. “The solution isn´t that everyone needs to become a vegetarian or a vegan. Simply reducing portion sizes and frequency would go a long way,” he said. And switching from beef and pork to chicken and fish would go a long way to help reduce the carbon footprint as well.