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THE VEGAN R-EVOLUTION: This is how much meat and dairy hurt the climate


Governments will need to craft policy to change meat and dairy production in order to reach climate targets, especially those of high-income countries, which emit an outsized proportion of the global share of greenhouse gas emissions.

KENNY TORRELLA: If the world were to end all meat and dairy production and transition to a plant-based food system over the next 15 years, it would prevent enough greenhouse gas emissions to effectively cancel out emissions from all other economic sectors for the next 30 to 50 years.

That’s according to new research published today in the journal PLOS Climate. The paper’s authors say such a shift would “substantially alter the trajectory of global warming,” as animal agriculture is estimated to account for around 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Pat Brown, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford University and the founder and CEO of the plant-based meat company Impossible Foods, and Michael Eisen, a professor of genetics and development at the University of California Berkeley, modeled the long-term “climate opportunity cost” of continuing business-as-usual meat and dairy production. (Seafood’s environmental impact was not included in the analysis.)

First, they calculated the effects of ending animal agriculture — and the high levels of methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide emissions it generates — and replacing it with a plant-only food system.

But direct emissions aren’t animal agriculture’s only contribution to climate change; 30 percent of the Earth’s land is used to either raise farmed animals or to grow crops to feed them. The report’s authors model that restoring or “rewilding” all of that land to ecological health would create a massive carbon sink, capturing and storing carbon that otherwise would’ve added to climate change…

A 15-year phase-out of meat and dairy is almost certainly not going to happen. And it’s worth noting that a massive shift to plant-based eating would financially benefit Brown and Eisen. Brown’s Impossible Foods is a highly valued maker of plant-based beef, pork, and chicken, while Eisen is an adviser for the company. Both are shareholders in the company. The authors disclose their conflicts in the paper.

Despite the financial conflict of interest, the science appears solid, according to Matthew Hayek, an assistant environmental studies professor at New York University and a recent Vox contributor…

While the financial stakes are meaningful for Brown, the planetary stakes are high for everyone. Research has found that even if we eliminate all fossil fuel use (and emissions from other sectors), the world will not reach the Paris climate agreement’s target of keeping the increase in global temperature to 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

In other words, reducing meat and dairy production isn’t just a nice-to-have in the effort to avert the worst effects of climate change, it’s a significant part of the global toolbox. And humanity needs to act soon…

It would also be an impossible transition for the estimated 2 billion people, most in the global South, who raise their own animals for food and income, though they eat far less meat than consumers in rich nations.

Why did Brown and Eisen model a 15-year phase-out? They said they want the climate community to pay more attention to the food system’s role in the climate crisis. Eisen said he hopes the impact would be “for people to realize just what kind of potential climate benefit we’re sitting on.”

Brown opposes political mandates and insists this shift needs to be market-driven and can be done, pointing to historical precedents like the rapid transition from analog cameras to digital ones. But the market alone couldn’t make such a swift change happen; plant-based meat accounts for less than 1 percent of the global meat market today. Big Food is selling more plant-based meat and dairy, but not fast enough to rapidly change the food system…

The study serves more usefully as a thought experiment, illustrating meat and dairy’s enormous carbon footprint, how much humanity would benefit from shifting to plant-based eating, and, hopefully, spurring efforts to reimagine how we produce protein with a growing global population that is eating more meat each year.

It’s a challenge governments and corporations — and the consumers who keep eagerly eating more meat — have largely ignored at our peril, producing ever more burgers, wings, and bacon and racking up a climate tab future generations will be left to pay…

Plant-based meat prices are coming down, which should also influence consumer uptake, but the impact may not be as big as plant-based boosters would hope. According to research from the Breakthrough Institute, a tech-focused environmental think tank, a 10 percent reduction in the price of plant-based beef could increase plant-based beef consumption by 23 percent, but it would only reduce cattle production by 0.15 percent.

However, the organization says that while the politics of meat feel quite fixed today, that could quickly change. If plant-and cell-based meat and dairy alternatives can greatly improve in taste and become cost-competitive with animal meat, the political, corporate, and social barriers against widespread adoption might start to weaken.

Brown says this change has to be market-driven. “Try to regulate [meat], you get thrown out of office,” he said. “Try and force people to change their diets, you’re not going to be their friend anymore. It has to be market-driven.”

Eventually — for the reasons Brown and Eisen have bluntly laid out — governments will need to craft policy to change meat and dairy production in order to reach climate targets, especially those of high-income countries, which emit an outsized proportion of the global share of greenhouse gas emissions. Influencing consumer behavior and what’s available on fast-food menus and grocery store shelves — market-driven approaches — will be critical, but can only do so much. SOURCE…