Putting agricultural greenhouse gas emissions on the agenda, not just the menu

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0


Credit: Paul Keeris, 2015

The conference catering trolley: it’s usually piled high with unlabelled food, can be something of a taste Russian roulette, and is often left untouched. It can be a saving grace for the rushed conference attendee or keen networker, but can also seem like a terrible waste.

There will no-doubt be catering trollies at this week’s Climate Action 2016 meetings in Washington, DC, leading one to ponder if the menu and agenda will be in harmony. The summit comes just two weeks after the Paris Agreement was signed, and eight months since the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed.

Happily, the agenda for this week’s meetings does include mention of agriculture, which is often strangely absent from high-level discussions about climate change. For example, the COP21 discussions were described as “‘Les Champs-Oubliés,’ or ‘the forgotten fields’” because they largely neglected to mention agriculture as a part of the problem or solution. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from agriculture have nearly doubled in the last 50 years and currently account for one-third of all GHGs, or more than 5.3 billion tonnes per year. At the same time, agriculture and smallholder farmers are also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, especially in developing countries.

Meat consumption is on the rise

meat production

Meat production by region. FAO STAT, 2016

Of particular concern should be the rise in global meat consumption. GHG emissions from livestock production represent at least 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. Enteric fermentation, when livestock produce methane as part of digestion then release it by belching, accounts for 39% of the agricultural sector’s GHG emissions, and rose by 11% in the decade between 2001 and 2011. Despite this damning evidence, meat consumption is on the rise. For example, the global demand for beef is projected to increase by 95% between 2006 and 2050 despite it being one of the most resource-intensive and environmentally damaging foods. Beef production uses seven times more resources, such as water, energy, and food or inputs than pork or poultry, and 20 times more than pulses.


Credit: ILRI/Stevie Mann

Meat and dairy can have their place in a healthy diet, and in sustainable agricultural development, but in developed countries people eat on average twice as much meat as is deemed healthy by experts. Several organisations, including the World Health Organisation and the USA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, recommend that plant-based diets are healthy and nutritious with significantly reduced environmental impact compared to diets that include meat. For example, analysis has shown that if everyone in the world could choose a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, agricultural GHG emissions could be reduced by 63% or 70% respectively. Despite a consistent flow of recent evidence, including scientific studies, independent reports, documentaries, TED talks and news articles, meat production and consumption is still on the rise.

In developed countries, most of us are free to make these choices because of the abundant variety of foods available to us. In the hope of encouraging people to choose plant-based diets and curtail the consumption of meat, some countries, such as Denmark, are introducing a “red meat tax” – Chatham House recommended that the UK could follow suit with a “carbon tax” of £1.76 per kilo on beef, intended to reduce consumption by 14%.

Developing countries have different challenges


Credit: IFPRI/Milo Mitchell

In contrast, in developing countries people tend to have far more restricted options, and animal products may represent an important source of micro- and macro-nutrients. The rise in meat consumption correlates with the rapid urbanisation visible across the developing world, as an expanding urban middle class demands a more varied and nutritious diet, and supplying this demand can offer significant opportunities for smallholder farmers to engage in value chains. However, excessive consumption of meat and highly processed foods, linked to non-communicable diseases such as obesity, type-2 diabetes and heart disease, are already visibly taking their toll on the health of people in developing countries, where in the last 30 years the number of overweight or obese adults increased from 250 million in 1980 to almost one billion by 2008.

Because of the impact of rising meat consumption on both health and the environment, tackling this issue presents an opportunity to have a real impact, both on the climate and quality of life. As governments, the private sector, NGOs, and other stakeholders enter discussions at the Climate Action summit this week we can only hope that they do so with these issues at the forefront of their minds. It will remain to be seen whether these discussions can put agriculture and livestock emissions on the agenda, and not just on the menu for the conference catering trolley.


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