Could Eating Less Meat Help Save The Planet?
June 21, 2012

Could Eating Less Meat Help Save The Planet?

Altering our diets to include less beef, pork, and poultry and finding ways to recycle our organic waste during the agricultural process could help rebalance the carbon cycle and reduce the risk of reaching more severe levels of global climate change, claims a new study from the University of Exeter.

If humanity's meat-eating habits continue as-is, the predicted rise in the global population could result in widespread ecological disaster, the university said in a June 19 statement. However, by changing what we eat and how we farm, we could create enough space to grow crops for bioenergy and carbon storage, they added.

"Though less efficient as an energy source than fossil fuels, plants capture and store carbon that would otherwise stay in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming," the university representatives wrote. "Burning our waste from organic materials, such as food and manure, and any bioenergy crops we can grow, while capturing the carbon contained within them, could be a powerful way to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide."

Their findings, which were published Wednesday in the Energy and Environmental Science journal, said, "we need to dramatically increase the efficiency of our farming by eating less beef, recycling waste and wasting less food" if we hope to feed the worldwide population of 9.3. billion people expected by 2050. Such changes, the researchers claim, could reduce the amount of land needed for farming while also freeing up enough land for bio-energy.

In order to make that happen, though, the Exeter researchers believe that the average global meat consumption will need to be reduced from 16.6% of average daily caloric intake to 15%. If that is accomplished, and if we can change how our land is used, recycle waste and dedicate adequate amounts of space for growing bioenergy crops, then the experts believe that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels can be reduced to safe levels.

"Our research clearly shows that recycling more and eating less meat could provide a key to rebalancing the global carbon cycle," lead researcher Tom Powell said in a statement. "Meat production involves significant energy losses: only around four percent of crops grown for livestock turn into meat. By focusing on making agriculture more efficient and encouraging people to reduce the amount of meat they eat, we could keep global temperatures within the two degrees threshold."

"Bioenergy with carbon storage could play a major role in helping us reduce future levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, we only stand a chance of realizing that potential, both for energy and carbon capture, if we increase the efficiency of agriculture. With livestock production accounting for 78 percent of agricultural land use today, this is the area where change could have a significant impact," added Professor Tim Lenton, co-author of the study.