Climate Change And Animal Agriculture: A Three Step Plan For Policy Makers
The damaging environmental impact of animal food systems has been repeatedly highlighted by researchers in recent years. To avoid such impacts, advocates often try to convince people to shift their individual diets away from a focus on animal products.
This research article argues that shifting food production from animal to plant-based foods is necessary for countries to achieve their global commitments to combat climate change. The author lays out a three-step policy strategy to move away from animal to plant-based food systems in order to achieve climate goals.
Current national pledges to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions put the world on track to 3.2-3.7 °C of global average temperature increase by the end of the 21st century. To keep warming below 1.5 or even 2 degrees, rapid reductions in GHG emissions are needed in multiple sectors, including agriculture. Overall, the production of meat, dairy, and eggs contribute to 16.5% of global GHG emissions according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.
There are first signs that the global community has taken note of the need to reduce animal agriculture to mitigate climate change. At the 2018 climate change conference COP24 in Katowice, Poland, a side event on the mitigation potential of plant-based diets was hosted by Humane Society International, among others. However, policy action to shift away from animal agriculture is still lacking.
This paper proposes three steps that policy makers at international and national levels should adopt to reduce GHG emissions from our food system:
- “Peak Livestock”: From the outset, policy makers should commit to future declines of the number of animals raised for food. In developing countries, “peak livestock” may take longer than in more industrialized countries.
- “Worst First” Approach: Policy actions should start by replacing food products which have the worst GHG footprint. Globally, that would mean starting with cow meat (5.86% of global GHG emissions), then cow milk (3.55%), pig meat (1.39%), and chicken meat (1.11%). However, policy makers should focus on products that are the worst offenders at their respective national or local level.
- Best Available Food: Together with the ‘worst first’ approach, the selection of replacement foods for animal products should be based on their GHG footprint and other sustainability criteria. For example, beans are likely a good alternative protein source to cow meat. For the same amount of protein, producing cow meat emits 46 times more GHGs than beans.
The paper notes that in addition to mitigating climate change, shifting to plant-based diets has multiple co-benefits for public health, food security, and protecting biodiversity. Crucially, policy measures need to be put in place that support this shift. The author suggests that international climate funds should support developing countries in their efforts to move to plant-based food systems. In developed countries, where more resources are available and animal products are consumed at a higher level, subsidies for animal agriculture should be cut and instead allocated to promote the production of best available replacement foods.
For animal advocates, this article provides a helpful framework to engage with policy makers and argue to shift away from animal agriculture towards plant-based food systems. However, it should be noted that the proposed ‘worst first’ approach – focusing on replacing cow meat and milk first – is in tension with some animal advocates’ strategy of reducing the suffering of the largest numbers of land animals suffering in agriculture. As the authors note, more than 80% of all land animals used for food are chicken. Still, the proposed strategy can be useful when tailoring messages to decision makers who are more receptive to climate change as an issue, as opposed to the well-being of animals.