Eating less dairy can save the world

Lorna Lawless

It’s time to wake up and recognise the connection between human behaviour and our growingly volatile planet. World leaders are looking for solutions to a growing problem of Global warming. Eating meat doesn’t just fuel climate change but pollutes waterways and landscapes.

You may choose to avoid dairy products for various reasons such as: an intolerance, an allergy, or to promote animal welfare. Whatever the reason is, this can have a positive effect on our environment.

“As the global population grows from 7 billion in 2010 to a projected 9.8 billion in 2050, and incomes grow across the developing world, overall food demand is on course to increase by more than 50 percent and demand for animal-based foods by nearly 70 percent. Yet today, hundreds of millions of people remain hungry, agriculture already uses almost half of the world’s vegetated land, and agriculture and related land-use change generate one- quarter of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” stated in an extensive report by the World Resource Institutes.

Nearly 10 billion people will live on the planet but have we asked the question, how will we produce enough food sustainably for all these people? The ‘Creating A Sustainable Food Future ’ report by the World Resource Institutes modelled and researched for over six years has provided at least some of the answers in how this will work.  The report recommends that consumers in the developed world change their diets to include less meat, especially ruminant which is basically cattle or sheep for us in Ireland. These animals contribute most heavily to GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions according to the research.

“Slowing demand growth requires reducing food loss and waste, shifting the diets of high meat consumers toward plant-based foods” stated Searchinger the lead author of the study. “Closing the land and GHG mitigation gaps requires that, by 2050, the 20 percent of the world’s population who would otherwise be high ruminant-meat consumers reduce their average consumption by 40 per- cent relative to their consumption in 2010.”

Meat and dairy provide only 18% of our calories and 37% of our protein, yet use up 83% of our farmland while producing 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions according to the world’s leading scientific journal Science titled ‘Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers’. The research also shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%.

According to The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations describes a sustainable diet as “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to a healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy while optimising natural and human resources “. Sustainable diets are a step forward for climate change by introducing more plant-based foods.

The report also outlines that increasing the abundance of non-meat proteins sources is also an essential part of changing diets sustainably. One of the ‘solutions or courses’ the report gives it to raise productivity which means increasing efficiency of natural resources. This means increasing yield crop to higher than ever before and dramatically increasing output of milk and meat per hectare of pasture per animal. So to conclude-get more out of what we already have with no waste. In order to feed our world in 2050 this must be implemented because if we don’t work at a higher rate of efficiency, that would then mean clearing most of the world’s remaining forests, wiping out thousands of more species, and releasing enough GHG emission to go past the recommended 1.5 and 2 degree warming targets in the Paris Agreement-even if our activity as humans on the planet was totally eliminated.

The report poses a solution to this growing issue by closing three big “gaps”. First of all the food gap, the difference between food produced in 2010 to the amount needed in 2050 and it’s a lot, 56% more than 2010 is needed. 2010 is the base year the study used as a comparison to gather results. Secondly the land gap, the difference between the global agricultural land in use in 2010 and whats needed by 2050. They have estimated we will need 593 million hectares more than we had in 2010 by 2050 if the rates of crop growth stay the same. Finally the GHG mitigation gap, the difference between the annual GHG emission likely from agriculture and land use in 2050.

The report estimated this difference to be 15 Gigatonnes in 2050 from 2010, when their target should have been 4 gigatonnes to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (Paris agreement)  so therefore we have an 11 gigatonne which needs to be sorted.

Even though this study focuses on the scope of the challenges facing us to start changing the way we live,  and how we may underestimate the significance of these issues. It also emphasizes the positive results that can be achieved if this research is heeded. If the recommendations are followed there are reasons to be hopeful about the future. A massive take away from this research is the need for efficiency in agriculture stated by one of the authors this is “the single most important step toward meeting both food production and environmental goals”.

So in short, this is a big deal which affects us all personally in our lifetime. These kinds of solutions need to be implemented or we are looking at a very gloomy future for food and for our planet.

Lorna Lawless

Image Credit: Deirdre Kelly