From farm to fork: conscious eating can help mitigate methane emissions

According to one study, food sector's emissions account for about 57% (including livestock feed), while 29% can be traced to plant-based foods and 14% to other related activities.
According to one study, food sector's emissions account for about 57% (including livestock feed), while 29% can be traced to plant-based foods and 14% to other related activities.

Summary

  • Aiming for net zero, the UN’s FAO wants people in the rich world to eat less meat. We need to discuss this sticky aspect of climate change without any guilt or stigma slapped onto diets.

As the next Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change approaches, news has emerged that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is set to present a plan on emission reduction that will include dietary advice for the rich world, asking its people to curb their meat intake. The average American consumes about 127kg of it annually, although under 16kg is considered healthy and people in some poor countries average less than 4kg. As CoP-28 begins in Dubai later this week, a restraint advisory for heavy consumers is likely to be part of an FAO roadmap for the global agrifood industry to align itself with the Paris pact’s goal of keeping our planet no warmer than 1.5° Celsius above its pre-industrial level. The FAO has said that about 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions on account of human activity come from meat and dairy production. That’s quite a chunk. As it involves people’s diets, discussion of it has been sparse. But no major source of emissions can be left out in the race to arrest global warming.

Not all of the food sector’s emissions are from animal food chains. According to one study, these account for about 57% (including livestock feed), while 29% can be traced to plant-based foods and 14% to other related activities. What makes livestock stand out, especially cattle, is the methane generated by farms that rear these animals. This is a gas that gets far less attention than carbon dioxide does, but it too adds to the crisis of an atmospheric heat-trap (fluorinated gases and nitrous oxide are even less known as culprits). Methane is a relatively short-lived gas with an atmospheric lifetime of around a decade, whereas carbon dioxide affects the climate for hundreds of years. But the former does its damage swiftly. Going by what’s known of its ‘global warming potential,’ a metric used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), one tonne of methane exhaust is likely to be the equivalent of over 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide over the course of a century. There is also an estimate of the heat caused by the gas. The 2021 Sixth IPCC Assessment Report says that anthropogenic methane accounts for almost a third of the planet’s warming observed so far. Among livestock, these emissions are the gaseous waste product of digestion. A 2018 study found sheep, goats, beef cattle and buffaloes to be big emitters.

Among the solutions proposed are methane mitigation paths for large-scale cattle farms, which could opt for dietary and rumen manipulation of animals, manure intervention and other practices. Laboratories and food chains in the West have also begun churning out all kinds of synthetic meat. Proposed substitutes include cultured meat, which uses technology to produce animal muscle cells through tissue culture in a laboratory. Food innovation in the West looks increasingly likely to explore ways of retaining high-meat diets without the world’s gaseous heat trap worsening. If cattle rearing to feed the West can be scaled down, sustainability could well come within sight for this sector. In India, the methane story differs, as livestock rearing is small and unorganized, with red meat eaten in low quantities per capita. While the rich world must move, there’s no justification for such diet advice aimed at Indians. What’s crucial, globally, as the FAO campaign rolls out, is that nobody’s diet preferences are trampled. There should be no reproach, let alone stigma, directed at those who consume red meat.

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