Greenhouse Gases and Dietary Changes
Vijay Sakhuja July 22, 2019/Commentary
The 21st century has been rightly labelled the ‘Climate Century’ and there is visible urgency to contain global temperature rise to 2˚C or below. Among the many initiatives currently underway to achieve that, deep cuts in global emissions in greenhouse gases (GHG) have been suggested.
One of the major contributors of GHG is the livestock sector; in particular, beef and cattle milk production result in anthropogenic GHG and represent 65 percent of the sector’s emissions i.e. 41 and 20 per cent respectively totalling about 4.6 giga tonnes carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent. Meanwhile, pork, poultry and eggs contribute less than ten percent each. Besides, there are other closely associated producers of GHG in this sector such as cattle feed production and processing, enteric fermentation from ruminants, manure storage and processing, and the balance is attributable to the processing and sector supply chains.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, nearly half of the global agriculture production is consumed by live stock and just 37 per cent is for humans. Another study by the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) provides some very alarming outcomes and notes that it takes about 7 kilogram of grain in dry weight to produce 1 kilogram of live weight for bovine, around 4 kilograms for 1 kilogram of live weight for pigs, and for poultry it is just over 2 kilograms. Furthermore, the United States Department of Agriculture notes that agriculture takes up 80 to 90 per cent U.S. water consumption, and the Environmental Working Group observes that one pound of eggs require 477 gallons of water and almost 900 gallons for one pound of cheese. If that be so, it is fair to argue that there is otherwise surplus plant-based food available for humans.
Livestock as a source of food is expected to grow in the coming years. This is driven by the projected increase in global population from 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. Consequently, any strong growth in the livestock sector to support the protein requirements of the growing population would result in higher GHG emissions. This necessitates urgent interventions to reduce emissions and can be achieved through sizeable reductions in the production and consumption of beef and cattle milk and balancing it with higher production of pork and poultry. However, that may not be sufficient.
In recent times interesting and promising initiatives by both the public and private sectors to promote agro-vegetable based diet among the people has been noticed. For instance, in the US, the sale of dairy and related products witnessed eight per cent drop from $14.7 billion in 2017 to $13.6 billion in 2018. One of the reasons for this drop has been the consumer shift toward plant-based alternatives for milk from oats, cashew, almond and soy. The US market trends suggest that the plant based dairy alternatives are currently valued at $17.3 billion and could double by 2023. The current meat value chain is about $1,900 billion and the livestock economy is a promising domain. Nearly 1 billion people are involved in the rearing, processing, distribution and sale of livestock, with half of those reliant on livestock for their livelihood. Significantly, livestock sector constitutes only 40 per cent of the agriculture as a whole that makes up approximately 3 per cent of global GDP.
While vegetarianism has been in vogue for a long time, it is veganism which is fast gaining popularity particularly among the Western countries such as the U.S., Canada, the UK and some countries in Europe. The vegan diet is being prompted on at least three counts; first is the issue of human health and a number of scientific studies have confirmed the benefits of plant-based diet that reduces the risk of chronic illnesses and diseases; second is the issue of sustainability and the international community has come to realize the critical need to reduce GHG emissions; and third is the growing understanding among the humans of the sustainability of veganism. In fact the vegan food industry is investing in vegan fashion, vegan leather to replace animal hide footwear and numerous other such products are making debut in the international market and gaining popularity among people at large.
This has led to a war between meat industry and vegan lobbyists who are promising options such as vegan meats, cheeses, milks, and other products. For instance, global plant milk market is expected to grow from over $8 billion in 2016 to $21 billion by 2024 and would be led by soy and coconut milk.
Finally, consumers are increasingly concerned about the impacts that animal-based foods have on land and water use, human health and above all on the environment, particularly in the context of GHG.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Trustee, The Peninsula Foundation, Chennai.