Growing the Good: The Case For Low-Carbon Transition in the Food Sector

October 2018 Report
Growing the Good

Executive summary

The animal agriculture industry is at a cross roads. As this report lays out, a perfect storm is approaching that, one way or another, will bring disruption and change. Transformation of the industry could bring significant benefits in terms of improved public health, better animal welfare and the unique ability to tackle multiple environmental crises simultaneously.

Faced with the urgent need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to meet internationally agreed climate targets, our report finds a shocking absence of policies to drive and accelerate low-carbon transition in the food sector. If the transformation is not quick and well managed, the animal agriculture will stumble across various ecological constraints, including water and land availability; worsening climate change will amplify these constraints, harming the productivity and viability of the sector.

Crucially, the game-changing innovation in modern computing, biotechnology and food science is now being applied to plant-based and cultured animal products in ways that were previously impossible, leading to an explosion of new products. Improving the price and quality of these products, and the ability to scale them, could lead to dramatic changes. Together with shifting cultural attitudes to the consumption of animal products – especially among the younger generation – this could mark a turning point, disrupting the market just like renewable energy is revolutionising the energy sector.

Low-carbon transition in food brings a unique opportunity. Reduction in demand for animal products would be a relatively easy and cheap way to mitigate a significant share of global GHG emissions, especially short-lived but potent methane emissions. It would also liberate vast areas of land, which will need to be maximised as a carbon sink and for nature conservation. This report concludes that governments must step up by putting in place policies to reduce excessive meat and dairy consumption, as part of a general shift towards healthier diets and better food-production systems.

In the last century, increases in global population, wealth and urbanisation have led to livestock production growing at an unprecedented pace. This has driven unhealthy overconsumption of meat and dairy products, 330 million tonnes (MT) and 812 MT of which are respectively consumed worldwide each year – a rate forecast to grow further, fuelled by emerging economies with growing middle classes. The global population of major livestock species is currently 30 billion – around four times as many animals as humans. The growth in this population has directly caused not only the loss of ecosystems and wildlife but also significant animal suffering, as these animals are increasingly bred in confined spaces and live much (if not all) of their short lives inside giant factory farms.

Climate, environmental and health benefits of low carbon transition

There are three compelling reasons – the climate, the environment and health – why change must, and will, happen soon.

First and foremost, animal agriculture is inextricably linked with the Earth’s rapidly changing climate system. It is both a leading source of global GHG emissions and a sector that the impacts of climate change – such as extreme weather events, water shortages and the spread of pests and diseases – will significantly affect. In total, livestock are responsible for around 16.5% of the world’s GHG emissions, and are the leading source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions. If expected forecasts for growth in meat and dairy consumption materialise, there will be almost no room within the total allowable global emissions budget for any sectors other than agriculture by 2050.

Increasing this pressure for change is the fact that reducing demand for meat and dairy would be a relatively easy and cheap way to quickly mitigate a significant share of global GHG emissions – especially those from short-lived, but relatively potent, heat-trapping methane. At the same time, this shift in diets could liberate vast areas of land currently supporting livestock production. This land will be needed as both a plant-based food source and, in particular, a carbon sink. As a consequence of these major benefits, modelling studies overwhelmingly suggest that a shift towards healthier diets, lower meat and dairy consumption and significant food-waste reductions is an essential condition to ensure the world’s temperature keeps below a 2°C increase, as agreed by the world’s governments at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference of the United Nations.

Second, the Earth’s environment cannot physically maintain the levels of natural resources required to satisfy current and projected demand for meat and other animal products. Animal agriculture is an extremely resource-intensive way to feed people; today, 70–80% of all agricultural land, including a quarter of all cropland, is required for pasture and the production of feed. This totals one-third of the planets’ ice-free land surface. The animal agriculture sector’s hunger for land and water makes it the leading source of biodiversity loss through deforestation, pollution, habitat degradation and competition with wildlife for natural resources. We are currently experiencing what scientists call the sixth great mass extinction in the Earth’s history; one of the foremost underlying drivers of this is animal agriculture, estimated to account for about 60% of human-caused biodiversity loss on land. Such is the resource intensity of animal agriculture that it will be impossible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across areas related to the environment and food security without a significant reduction in demand for animal products. Reducing demand for such products also brings a unique opportunity to shift production towards more environmentally friendly farming methods, such as free-range and organic production.

Finally, the excessive consumption of animal products in high-income countries is already between two and three times higher than what is considered healthy, and is associated with an increased incidence of diet-related disease. Mounting scientific evidence is linking our excessive consumption of livestock products, particularly red and processed meat, with increasing incidence of cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The way animals are produced and killed also increases the risk to humans of novel infectious diseases and is a known driver of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which has been acknowledged as one of the biggest health threats for humanity in the 21st century. Shifting to more sustainable and low-meat diets can bring significant individual and public health benefits where excessive consumption is rife, resulting in massive savings for national health budgets.

The urgent need and opportunity for science-based policy

The urgent need for change in the animal agriculture sector is compelling on all fronts, and momentum has been building over the past decade. Public awareness campaigns about meat consumption that go beyond traditionally better-known concerns, such as animal welfare, were considered taboo not so long ago but are now gaining ground. Market change is happening very quickly; plant-based products currently represent the highest-growth food category, and are especially popular among the younger generation. This is a challenge for the existing food sector, but a large opportunity for innovative companies that are willing to invest in cleaner and healthier alternative products. Innovation in this sector is also on the rise; a number of disruptive start-ups are offering alternatives to conventional meat and dairy – from plant-based burgers that ‘bleed’ beetroot juice to animal products grown from cell cultures – that have the potential to be cleaner, and even more affordable, than meat consumed today. Yet, while change is underway, its pace is not in line with the urgency needed to stave off the environmental crises on the horizon.

To think about a low-emissions transition in food systems, this report has examined analogies in the energy and transport sectors, in which contemporary multilevel policies include GHG reduction targets, carbon-pricing strategies and strategies to promote low-carbon alternatives, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and low-carbon vehicles. The total absence of similar measures aiming to transform the food sector – and, to make this possible, to shift diets – is shocking. Two broad factors are offered to explain this state of affairs: governments’ fear of public backlash for seeking to influence consumers’ food choices, and the influence of the powerful agricultural and food lobby, which has reacted swiftly and defensively to the smallest sign of shifting public attitudes and political support away from meat and dairy consumption and towards incorporating a range of alternative foods within healthier diets. Compared to other sectors, where low-carbon transition is happening (albeit too slowly), the food sector completely lacks public policies at all levels to drive change towards science-based targets. What’s more, most existing policies still support incumbent production systems, providing subsidies and market- support measures to intensive meat and dairy farmers and to the big corporations that benefit from this system. As these players feel threatened by the growth of alternative products, some politicians are even introducing new legislative measures aiming to restrict the market for such products, such as the recent French ban on terms like ‘vegan burger’. Through policy inaction, governments are forcing the public to pick up the bill for the environmental externalities of animal agriculture, and denying market opportunities for more sustainable models of food and livestock production.

It does not have to be like this. Research conducted across multiple countries and continents by the influential think tank Chatham House revealed that the public expects governments to take the lead and address such an important issue, and that the risk of a public backlash against ambitious government policies in this area is overestimated. The research also highlighted that, if provided with convenient, tasty and not-too-expensive alternatives, together with sufficient information about the problem, many citizens would be happy to reduce their meat intake.

Governments must now wake up to this and set science-based targets and policies for an orderly transition towards sustainable, low-emission and healthier food systems. They should do this individually (at the nation-state level) and collectively (through intergovernmental institutions, such as the European Union (EU), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), World Health Organization (WHO), etc.). They should expect resistance to change from the incumbents, but this should not slow down their actions, as the window of opportunity to prevent dangerous climate chaos is closing.

On the positive side, food is the sector where market transformation can happen quickly and have significant short-term benefits, especially through reductions of potent GHGs such as methane. Social norms and practices around food are not set in stone but are constantly changing; just 70 years ago (before the rise of industrial farming), meat consumption was significantly lower. Governments must set clear trajectories for the transition to give certainty to companies and investors; help farmers to adjust to these changes, and create an engaging and desirable vision for citizens of how one of the most important problems of our era can be addressed. The arguments in favour of health, animal welfare and the environment are overwhelming.

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