At the Climate Conference in Paris at the end of 2015 for the first time in history the need for production of food has made it into a climate treaty. Methane production from livestock and the accompanying CO2 footprint of animal production were focused upon.
The hidden cost of seemingly cheap food production is damaging the planet, driving human disease and jeopardizing food workers exposed to toxins every day. Experts who gathered at the True Cost of American Food conference in San Francisco said for every dollar American consumers pay for food, the country is spending up to two dollars to fight diseases linked to poor food production, worker abuse and environmental harms.
If Americans made changes to their diets and stopped wasting food, they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help conserve global natural resources, experts say. Cutting down on milk and meat protein are top ways to lower an individual’s carbon footprint, said Janet Ranganathan, vice president of science and research at the World Resources Institute.
“Other than for a small segment of population, a vegan or vegetarian diet is not going to work and is not necessary,” said Ranganathan. “We wanted to look at things that were more plausible and consistent with what people are likely to do.” The average American consumer is eating 83 grams of animal-based protein a day, well above the daily recommended amount of 51 grams. The research calls for bringing that overconsumption back in line with global average levels, according to Ranganathan. “What we’ve shown is they can cut their environmental impacts nearly in half by eating less meat and dairy,” she said.
The report’s authors calculated that if 2 billion consumers who eat over the recommended amount of meat cut their animal-based protein consumption in half, it would help to reduce the global “food gap” by 30 percent. Even changing what kinds of meat people eat can make a dent in their carbon footprint. For instance, trading a third of beef consumption for pork or poultry can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent, Ranganathan said. Switching to white meat makes a difference because ruminant livestock like cattle, sheep and goats are responsible for close to half of the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Of the three animals, cattle are by far the least efficient at converting their feed into meat or milk for human consumption. Beef production uses about a third of the water used in all farm animal production worldwide. Reducing beef consumption alone could be an important part of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“The bottom line is that growing food takes a lot of resources and it does have a huge amount of impact on water use and land use, and so when we are not using that food, it is a terrible use of those resources,” said Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at NRDC who helped to develop the Save the Food campaign. “Either we can convert new land, or we can grow more on the same land, but we can lighten the demand pressure if we make better use of the food we have rather than throwing it away,”