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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

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

Related stories

Calls for climate change to top DA policy conference agenda

Some people in the Democratic Alliance apparently have a narrow view of what sustainability means, but voters are concerned about the climate crisis

Climate science’s blind spot for heat waves in southern Africa

The lack of detailed information on extreme heat impacts hinders disaster response and preparedness.

Covid-19 puts green energy in a coma

The pandemic has disrupted governments’ plans to flatline the upward trajectory of global warming

Invest in children to give them a better world

This entails putting them at the centre of national strategies, but doing it without high CO2 releases

Richard Calland: What brave new world awaits us?

Responses to terrible inequality, climate change and the Covid-19 economic crisis will decide this

Editorial: Next budget must be a hot issue

We are understandably focused on this crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, that is killing people and destroying livelihoods everywhere. But we are losing sight of the other crises that destroy life

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

White men still rule and earn more

Women and black people occupy only a few seats at the JSE table, the latest PwC report has found

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday