Save the planet? Stop eating meat

(07.06.2010)The Earth is expected to be home to roughly 9 billion people by 2050 -- and everyone needs to eat. But a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme observes that growing and producing food make agriculture and food consumption among the most important drivers of environmental pressures, including climate change and habitat loss. The report's lead author is Edgar Hertwich, a Professor of Energy and Process Engineering at NTNU.

The report, called "Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials" is the first-ever global-level assessment of the causes of different environmental pressures that result from economic activities. Professor Hertwich, who is director of NTNU's Industrial Ecology Programme, worked with colleagues for two years to develop detailed answers to three interrelated questions:

  • What are the most important industries that cause climate change?
  • How much energy do different consumption activities require when the production of the products is taken into account?
  • What are the materials that contribute most to environmental problems?

Agriculture causes major environmental impacts
Professor Hertwich said he was surprised to find that the environmental impacts of agriculture were greater than the production of materials such as cement and other manufactured goods. While the report does not make specific recommendations for change -- it is instead a detailed description of the problem -- Hertwich says, "it is clear that we can't all have a European average diet -- we just don't have the land and resources for that."

The report itself observes that "impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth, increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products."

More income, more meat in our diets
Another surprise was the effect of increasing economic affluence on different environmental impacts. The report authors found that environmental impacts increase approximately 80 per cent with the doubling of an individual's income. This increase results in part from a shift to a more meat-intensive diet.

Another related problem -- and another surprise to Hertwich -- was the amount of food waste in both rich and poor countries. "Between 30 and 50 per cent of all food produced is spoiled or wasted," Hertwich said. "It's really quite surprising how much food waste there is." In poor countries, food is spoiled on the way to the market, while in rich countries, it spoils in people's refrigerators, he said.

Hope for the future?
Both Hertwich and international environmental officials say that people and policymakers must face the substantial environmental challenges facing all of humankind. In a press release from the UNEP, Ashok Khosla, co-chair of the Panel and President of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), is quoted as saying: "Incremental efficiency gains in, for example, motor cars or home heating systems have provided some improvements but, faced with the scale of the challenge, far more transformational measures need to be taken-- currently we are fiddling--or fiddling around the edges--while Rome burns."

Hertwich agreed with Khosla's assessment. "There are fundamental challenges out there that I don't think that we as a society have woken up to yet," he said. "Somewhere in our rear-view mirror there is a big monster, and we are pretending it is not there. But I think if we really decide to tackle these challenges we will be able to do so."

Hertwich has also developed a website that enables individuals to look at the Carbon Footprint of Nations. The report was released to coincide with the UN's Environment Day on June 5. It has received extensive international coverage, including in The Guardian newspaper in the UK.