In mid-July, as a brutal drought decimated crops, some European dairy and meat farmers were forced to cull their herds early to reduce the number of animals they needed to feed. Such desperate decisions will become routine in a world where heat waves will be longer, hotter, drier, and more frequent. That is why now is the right time to start a serious conversation about animal agriculture.
The animal agriculture industry is not only vulnerable to the observed and predicted effects of climate change; it is also a key contributor to the problem. In fact, the farming of animals for meat and dairy products accounts for 16.5% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.
Moreover, if we treated climate change as the emergency it is and were serious about slowing the pace of warming over the next 20 years, the proportional influence of livestock farming would be even greater. This is because the animal sector is responsible for a third of all anthropogenic methane and two-thirds of nitrous oxide emissions – both potent greenhouse gases that trap more heat than carbon dioxide.
Beyond climate pollution, a staggering 60% of all biodiversity loss is attributable to land-use changes from animal cultivation, and as much as 80% of all land in farming is devoted either to raising animals or to growing their feed. There is also the stubborn reality that eating so many animals is making us less healthy.
We can do better without great sacrifice. According to recent research by Chatham House, for example, people in developed countries would accept reducing their meat intake if convenient and tasty alternatives were available for about the same price.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that everyone should become vegetarian or vegan (though it is indisputable that these diets are better for the environment, contribute less to climate change, and are healthier). Nor do I think that governments should mandate limits on meat consumption. But for policymakers who accept that there is little downside and significant upside for most people in developed countries to reduce their meat intake, there are plenty of cost-effective solutions to nudge us in that direction.
For starters, governments can – and should – stop subsidizing factory farming and the crops that fatten up factory-farmed animals for slaughter. By supporting polluting and inhumane practices, countries are literally paying companies to undermine the emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Instead, governments can – and should – shift subsidies to encourage the production of more climate-neutral, protein-rich crops, like pulses and other legumes. By planting more beans, peas, and lentils, farmers would help combat climate change by lowering greenhouse-gas emissions, and would benefit from crops that are more resilient to drier, warmer weather.
Government support can also be diverted from factory meat farms toward development of plant-based “meats” and other meat alternatives. The market for “clean meat” is nascent but burgeoning, and the public response has been overwhelmingly positive to some of the more advanced products on the market.
Still, just like the fossil-fuel industry, meat industry advocates have pushed policymakers to block the mainstreaming of alternatives. In many countries, lobbyists have even successfully championed the prohibition of meat-based names for plant-based products. For example, France recently banned terms like vegan “burger” and “steak” on the grounds that only animal meat could be either.
Such policies are a clear barrier to reducing meat consumption, and they contradict countries’ commitment to meet their Paris-agreement targets. The meat sector’s support for them puts it in the same role as the fossil-fuel industry, focused on nothing more than its own bottom line. Or can producers engage as a positive force in the transition away from meat?
When it comes to climate policy, food and agriculture should be treated more like energy and transportation, both of which have clear guidance on how to address climate change and reduce emissions. Policies to limit the planet-warming effects of agriculture and food production are long overdue.
We are two years away from the first major report to gauge progress under the Paris agreement. Countries will have to show what they have done and what they are doing to cut their emissions. But they will leave a huge part of the problem untouched if they fail to address the production and consumption of meat and dairy.
Meanwhile, European farmers will suffer through more droughts like the one they endured this summer, as will other food producers around the world. It will become harder and harder to farm meat and dairy products, and early culls will become the new normal. As with fossil fuels, our only choice is to overcome the industry’s defensive resistance and transform our food system so that it enables diets that are healthier, cleaner, and every bit as delicious.