We need common sense when addressing meat’s role in climate change

Public opinions about livestock production continue to evolve. People of all ages attend a youth-led “Fridays for Future” protest, pushing for urgent measures to combat climate change, in Berlin, Germany, earlier this week.  |  REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

If social media is anything to go by in assessing public opinion, and really it is not, people are losing their minds over meat’s role in climate change.

As is too often the case, the extreme positions dominate the discussion.

On the one hand, if we don’t all become vegetarians or vegans we are evil beings destroying the world, and on the other hand if you don’t have unfettered access to a supersized triple decker burger with bacon and extra cheese you might as well live in a communist gulag.

In reality, if people in the wealthy first world simply cut meat consumption to levels recommended by health professionals, stopped wasting so much food and if the best livestock genetics and production practices were available and implemented around the world we’d be well on our way to meeting the needed response.

Sharply reducing ultra-processed food — fast food, sugary drinks, chips, candy bars and cookies — would also help.

We’d lower greenhouse gas production and likely enjoy the benefits of better health and reduced health-care spending.

Too often the needed actions to lessen climate change are presented as daunting, society-changing revolutions that spark strong negative responses or feelings of helplessness.

But in reality, our society and economy is changing all the time, at an ever quicker pace.

Even in our meat consumption North Americans have been changing over the decades.

Numbers from the United States Department of Agriculture show that America’s per capita meat and poultry consumption has steadily risen, to about 221 pounds per person this year from 167 lb. in 1960.

However the mix of meat has changed. Beef consumption grew into the 1970s, peaking in 1976 at 94 lb. but then gradually declined to 58 lb. per person this year.

Pork has remained fairly consistent, ranging from the high 40s to the mid 50s.

Chicken has been the big gainer, rising from 28 lb. in 1960 to 93 lb. this year. Turkey has also seen huge gains, to 16 lb. this year from six in 1960.

Surveys show the drift away from beef has been driven mostly by consumer perceptions of cost and health considerations.

The numbers in Canada are similar.

So already, North Americans have been shifting their meat consumption from beef, a higher GHG generator, to lower GHG-producing meats.

Meanwhile, the North American meat farmer’s pursuit of efficiency has also slashed the amount of GHGs generated per unit of meat produced. Today they can produce the same amount of beef as they did in 1977 with 33 percent fewer cattle and lowering the amount of GHG production by about the same amount.

And the improvements are not stopping there. Cargill recently announced a program, growing from its Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration Pilot project, to cut the emission intensity of its North American beef supply chain by 30 percent by 2030 by improving grazing management, making irrigation more efficient and capturing value from manure.

As well, researchers at the University of Lethbridge and many other institutions are looking at additives to cattle diets and vaccines that could lower the amount of methane cows burp. Breeding for reduced methane production is also being investigated.

Cattle raising in other parts of the world has worse climate impacts, particularly in places like Brazil, the world’s largest beef exporter and the place where production most encourages forest removal.

Since president Jair Bolsonaro came to power last year and rolled back environmental protections, monthly deforestation rates in Brazil have risen to record highs, releasing enormous amounts of carbon.

It is critically important to halt this deforestation and instead encourage the intensification of livestock production to reduce its carbon footprint.

Generally this is the position of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Far from holding radical ideas about ending animal agriculture and forcing vegetarianism on people, the FAO’s discussion paper, Livestock Solutions for Climate Change begins with the following sentence:

“Livestock are key to food security.”

It recognizes the critical role of meat, milk and eggs in providing 34 percent of protein consumed globally as well as essential micronutrients and says their contribution to food security and nutrition goes beyond that.

The goal is to preserve animal agriculture while reducing its negative environmental impacts. The FAO says that can be achieved with productivity improvements that reduce emission intensities, carbon sequestration through improved pasture management and better livestock integration in the wider bio-economy through such things as increasing the amount of human food waste incorporated in livestock diets and by recovering nutrients and energy from animal waste.

Almost as a side note, it also mentions that emissions can be reduced by lowering meat demand and in areas where consumption is high.

None of this sounds like something you need to go crazy about on social media. It is not a daunting, society-changing revolution. It is just common sense and the sooner we do it, the sooner we will reap the healthful, financial and environmental benefits.

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