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CLIMATE CRISIS: Can going vegan save the world?

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Scientists have said avoiding meat and dairy products from your diet is the single best way an individual can cut down their own impact on the environment and help tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis.

HARRY COCKBURN: The great project of our species has been agriculture. Since the end of the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago, humans have been hell-bent on farming our way to prosperity. And after a slow start, we seem to have become incredibly good at it. Over the millennia, gradual improvements to our farming techniques created access to abundant food, thereby laying down the bedrock required for our first civilizations and societies to be founded and grow.

This progress was supercharged by the industrial revolution, and over the last two centuries, farming techniques have rapidly advanced, ultimately precipitating a whole new relationship between humans, livestock, food, the global economy, and the environment.

But just at the same moment when the food choices available to the average western consumer have never been broader, nor the comparative costs of eating so low, the dark, swelling underbelly of much of the food we eat – the toll it is taking on our planet – has become increasingly exposed, and it is not pretty.

Deforestation, lethal pesticide use, overfishing, monoculture farms devoid of wildlife, contagious animal diseases which pose risks to humans, soil degradation, and the endless invisible greenhouse gases released by livestock, are all among the issues consumers can grapple with if they have the inclination…

While animal welfare has long been a serious issue for many people in food production, there are now new worries over the broader impacts on the environment and the global climate crisis due to the ways our food is produced, transported, packaged and sold.

Images of animals suffering in slaughterhouses have been part of campaigns against meat eating for many decades, but it is only relatively recently that concerns about the environment have also begun to lead people to the same conclusion.

An analysis by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization found meat and dairy account for 14.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – the same as all cars, HGVs, aircraft, and shipping combined. Why is this? Well, the world-changing impact of surging demand for meat and dairy is hard to overstate.

Of all the mammals on Earth, 96 per cent of them are now livestock. Meanwhile, since the dawn of humanity, our species has caused the loss of 83 per cent of wild animals, and around half of plants. Meat production uses around 82 per cent of the world’s farmland and produces 60 per cent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. In total, around 30 per cent of all land in the world which is ice-free is used to grow grains, fruits and vegetables that are directly fed to the chickens, pigs and cattle that we eventually eat…

So in the decades of the late 20th and early 21st century, many people are increasingly developing new sets of behavior around food. A 2019 Ipsos Mori survey, commissioned for The Vegan Society, found that the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2019.

In 2019 there were around 600,000 vegans, or 1.16 per cent of the population. While this figure is low, it represents a rise from 150,000 vegans (0.25 per cent of the population) in 2014. This year, 500,000 people around the world signed up for the Veganuary campaign, double the 2019 figure.

Meanwhile, people who describe themselves as vegetarian make up almost 15 per cent of the UK population, and pescatarians – who don’t eat meat, but do eat fish – made up 6 per cent, while those who said they eat everything accounted for 61 per cent of the population, according to the latest figures from Statista…

Scientists have said avoiding meat and dairy products from your diet is the single best way an individual can cut down their own impact on the environment and help tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis. Landmark research by academics at Oxford University in 2018 found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent.

If everyone stopped eating these foods overnight, then global farmland use could be reduced by 75 per cent – an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined. Not only would this result in a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, it would also free up wild land lost to agriculture, one of the primary causes for mass wildlife extinction…

Transitioning away from meat and dairy is ultimately unavoidable, if the world is to meet climate targets, according to Dr Mike Clark, from Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Population Health, an expert on environmental, economic, and health impacts of food systems.

He said: “At a global scale, there is an abundance of evidence that suggests that consumption and production of meat and dairy need to reduce in order to promote health and meet environmental targets. This is particularly true in high-income economies like the UK, USA, Australia, EU with histories of high meat and dairy consumption”…

The creation of policies to promote responsible, sustainable food production methods do not lie with consumers, but with governments, which have the power to do things on a grand scale over a short timeframe… Going vegan or reducing meat and dairy won’t be enough to prevent climate catastrophe on its own, but it is a vital step in the right direction, and people will need support from the state, companies, and other organizations to achieve this. SOURCE…

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