Eating Less Meat Essential For Food Security In A Changing Climate, Says New IPCC Report

A transformation of global diets away from red meat consumption and towards healthier plant-based alternatives is critical for the world to combat climate change and land degradation that threatens food systems, while meeting the nutrition requirements of a growing population, says a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report, Climate Change and Land, by the UN’s top body of climate scientists, said that food security could be jeopardised unless there is a shift away from red meat to diets richer in plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables and legumes, supplemented by animal protein sources like poultry, eggs, pork and milk products – whose production generates comparatively fewer climate emissions than red meat.

The IPCC report, released Thursday in Geneva, is likely to shift the conversation around health and climate change – which has tended to focus on the health impacts of extreme weather and air pollution – to the less-traveled territory of sustainable agriculture, nutrition and food security.

Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung

“Consumption of healthy and sustainable diets presents major opportunities for reducing GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions from food systems and improving health outcomes,” says the 1500-page report by 103 experts from 52 countries.

“Examples of healthy and sustainable diets are high in coarse grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds,” and are “low in energy-intensive animal-sourced and discretionary foods (such as sugary beverages),” the report notes.

The new IPCC report now says that shifts may not only be critical to health, but to the basic food security of millions of people, as the global population is expected to grow by several billion more people by the end of the century.

“Replacing beef in the US diet with poultry can meet caloric and protein demands of about 120 to 140 million additional people consuming the average American diet,” the report points out.

And because red meat production requires such heavy inputs of land, energy, and water, as well as grain for cattle feed, reduced meat consumption would also lessen pressure on those resources, and thus vulnerability to climate change, the report emphasises. For example, beef products sold in the US account for just 4 percent of food products sold (by weight), but 36 percent of climate emissions associated with food production.

The strong health messages in the report echo those issued by WHO at the last UN Climate Change Conference in December 2018.

A WHO Health & Climate Change report released at the conference in Katowice, Poland stated that: “Moderation of red meat consumption by high-income populations could result in some of the largest reductions in climate change and the greatest improvements in health associated with the agricultural sector, as a significant proportion of agricultural emissions come from livestock, especially methane from ruminants.”

Global Food System Threatened on Multiple Fronts

The IPCC report goes even further to explain that the global food production system is threatened on multiple fronts. Those include climate-induced changes in weather such as more droughts and flooding, other climate and environmental drivers of land degradation and desertification, and finally non-climate stressors, such as population and income growth.

“Without inclusion of comprehensive food system responses in broader climate change policies… food security will be jeopardized,” it warns.

Despite a 30 percent increase in global food production since 1961, current food production patterns have led to tremendous nutrition imbalances, which affect both rich and poor. For instance, an estimated 821 million people are currently undernourished and 151 million children under 5 are stunted, while 2 billion adults are overweight or obese, the report notes, citing WHO nutrition data.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that based on current trends, 50 percent more food would need to be produced by 2050 in order to accommodate the world’s growing population. But IPCC concludes that based on current production models, such an increase would “engender significant increases in GHG emissions and other environmental impacts, including loss of biodiversity,” which would contribute to further spiraling of climate change.

The IPCC report therefore calls for more sustainable patterns of global food production as well as consumption, in order to both mitigate and adapt to a changing climate, using measures that would also improve nutrition and food security.

“Agriculture and the food system are key to global climate change responses,” the report concludes. “Combining supply side actions such as efficient production, transport, and processing with demand-side interventions such as modification of food choices, and reduction of food loss and waste, reduces GHG emissions and enhances food system resilience.”

“Such combined measures can enable the implementation of large-scale land-based adaptation and mitigation strategies without threatening food security from increased competition for land for food production and higher food prices.”

Food Waste and Food Loss Also Big Problems

Tackling another neglected aspect of food systems, the IPCC estimates that between 25 to 30 percent of all food produced is lost or wasted. Such waste and loss is in turn responsible for 8-10 percent of all climate emissions from agriculture and land use.

Food loss refers to any food that is lost in the supply chain between the producer and the market. Food waste refers to more deliberate disposal of food that would still be fit for consumption. “A large share of produced food is lost in developing countries due to poor infrastructure, while a large share of produced food is wasted in developed countries,” the report notes. In 2007, for instance, around 20 percent of the food produced went to waste in Europe and North America, while around 30 percent of the food produced was lost in sub-Saharan Africa. Problems with food waste thus reflect the underlying problems developed countries face with over-consumption and obesity, while food loss is a problem in countries where many people also face food insecurity.

Technical solutions to food loss include improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure, transport, and packaging to keep food fresher for longer, although some of these can also create new costs on local environments, the report noted. Non-technical solutions could include changes in behaviours and attitudes across the food system.

“Food loss and waste can be recovered by distributing food surplus to groups affected by food poverty or converting food waste to animal feed,” the report states. “Unavoidable food waste can also be recycled to produce energy based on biological, thermal and thermochemical technologies.” Additionally, the report notes that strategies for reducing food loss and waste should consider gender dynamics – involving participation of women throughout the food supply.

Image Credits: USDA/Lance Cheung.

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