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9 August, 2021updated 12 Oct 2021 05:26

“Cows are the new coal.” Meat consumption falls under environmental microscope.

The move from fossil fuels to renewable energy is firmly under way, but the role meat consumption plays in the climate crisis is coming under greater scrutiny.

By Marina Leiva


As the world fights to tackle climate change by reducing fossil-fuel-based carbon emissions, the negative environmental role meat consumption plays is coming more into the spotlight. (Photo by Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty Images)

Almost every week a new report comes out recommending a decrease in meat consumption, followed by a politician stating that consumers need to put more vegetables on their plates and less meat. Increasingly, parallels are being drawn between meat consumption and the clean energy transition.

Investor network FAIRR Initiative, whose members have up to $40bn of assets under management, recently published a statement titled ‘Where’s the beef?‘, urging G20 countries to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the animal agriculture sector. The note pointed to the COP26 summit taking place in Glasgow later in 2021 as an opportunity to introduce the topic into the climate conversation, Jeremy Coller, chair of FAIRR and chief investment officer of Coller Capital, explained in a press release.

“Cows are the new coal,” he said. “The emissions from agriculture and related land use are on a level with the greenhouse gases emitted by the EU, US and Japan combined. If the COP26 process can transparently set out each country’s plans to address agriculture’s climate footprint, it would boost the confidence of investors to mobilise capital towards more sustainable food and farming.”

Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated both the conversation and actions around the move away from coal production, and in a similar vein more and more plant-based products have popped up on supermarket shelves.

However, meat production is increasing and the emergence of an incipient middle class in developing countries is working hand-in-hand with a demand for more animal protein. The urgent need to transition towards clean energy has been well documented over the past few decades, but now that conversation is taking in the importance of building a sustainable food system, given that agriculture is responsible for one-third of GHG emissions.

Are meat consumption emissions that bad?

According to a report on GHG emissions from agriculture, forestry and land use by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, between 2005 and 2014, livestock-related emissions from enteric fermentation and manure contributed to an average of 63% of total emissions in agriculture.

At the same time, a new study published in Nature Food revealed that food systems are becoming more energy-intensive, due partly to packaging, processing and transportation. The study also revealed that packaging now accounts for about 5.4% of global emissions from food systems.

Between the impact on the environment and the link to unhealthy diets, an increasing number of voices are calling for people to eat more vegetables and less meat, from the Spanish consumer affairs minister to Ban Ki-moon, the eighth secretary-general of the UN and one of the architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Recently, the National Food Strategy was published to help transform the UK food system, with the intention of preventing food insecurity while at the same time making UK diets more climate-friendly. Commissioned by the government in 2019 with recommendations by Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of UK fast food chain Leon, the strategy includes introducing help for low-income families to buy more fruit and vegetables.

In response, the food industry has taken note of the direction the markets are moving in. Big players in the sector, from Nestlé to Burger King, are launching plant-based lines, while vegan companies are becoming ever-larger.

With the Covid-19 pandemic still impacting all corners of the globe and COP26 happening later in the year, there seems to be a good opportunity to rethink meat consumption towards global food systems that are kinder to the planet and its inhabitants. The lack of urgent action in the latter half of the 20th century to limit the damage coal was doing to the environment has been a big factor behind the current climate emergency. The world cannot afford to do the same with meat consumption.

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