Cutting out meat and dairy and slashes your carbon footprint

The problem with climate change is it’s such a big thing. It’s as if the scale of the problem is too hectic to internalise,and our own responses appear so infinitesimal that there seems little point in doing anything to mitigate climate change.

Some of us still do as many small things as we can: accelerating less to lower the amount of fumes from our car, planting vegetable gardens, switching to a solar geyser.

Each action accumulates and, put together, the collective small actions can help to lower carbon emissions. This can even have an effect on the companies that supply the goods everyone uses, which will lower their negative effect on the world.

But new research from the University of Oxford says there’s little point in doing all the good things if you continue to consume dairy and meat products. That’s everything from a steak to milk and cheese. The article, Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts through Producers and Consumers, was published in the journal Science.

Its findings are startling. Cutting out anything that comes from an animal reduces each person’s carbon footprint by 73%. This would drop the amount of land used worldwide for farming animals by 75%.

Farming meat uses a huge amount of energy, food and space. Each part of the process of growing an animal —feeding it, killing it, packaging it,shipping it and packaging it again for people to buy at shops — requires materials that are bad for the planet.

In contrast, plants take up much less space per unit of food (or energy) that they create. They also require less water and fewer ingredients to get to the point where they can be packaged and sold. Critically, plants can be grown close to home, which means the industry can cut down on the damage done by moving produce around the world.

To work this out, the Oxford team looked at data from 4000 farms in 119 countries.

They found that meat and dairy products makeup 60% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions but provide only 18% of all the calories and 37% of the protein that people ingest.

Habit aside, the research makes going vegan a no-brainer. But that’s an extreme change in practice, so the Oxford team also looked at howto farm meat and poultry in ways that release fewer greenhouse gases.

The biggest change would be to move away from intensive feedlots to letting animals graze on natural fields. If 50% of animals that provide dairy and meat products were raised in this way, there would be a two-thirds reduction in carbon emissions.That’s a huge reduction in each person’s carbon footprint, without a complete change in the way we eat.

Perhaps meat-free Monday to Friday isn’t as pointless as it sounds.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is a former acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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