Meat, Dairy, And Canada’s Climate Actions
Imagine a future where people consume very few animal products. Farmed animals would clearly benefit, but the authors of this report suggest that people may also reap economic rewards.
The researchers studied how shifting consumer demands for animal products in Canada would impact the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. Canada intends to reach a 40-45% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. As it stands, agriculture produces 12% of the nation’s GHG emissions. Most of these emissions come from animals and their waste, but also from the work and fertilizer needed to grow their food.
To study the impacts of dietary shifts, the authors simulated three different scenarios: a future with low animal product consumption (meat and dairy intake decreases by 84%), one with medium animal product consumption (meat and dairy intake decreases by 51%), and one with high animal product consumption (intake remains approximately the same as current levels). They found that a drastic reduction in animal product consumption could make it 11% less expensive for Canada to meet its 2030 climate goals. Three key things would need to happen: plant-based foods take a majority of the market share, the cost of plant-based options decreases significantly, and people are willing to substitute animal products with plant-based alternatives.
If by 2050 people hardly cut back on meat and dairy, the agricultural industry will need to adapt quickly to reach emissions targets. One means of complying is to adopt greener technology, such as electric vehicles. Examples include plug-in and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. However, purchasing them and constructing charging infrastructure is expensive. Other obstacles include a lack of supply and concerns that electric vehicles cannot hold enough charge.
Using renewable bioenergies and electric heating for animal housing facilities are other options to reduce the net GHG footprint of animal agriculture. Because farmed animals create methane when digesting feed and when their manure decomposes, the authors mention manure composting and feed additives as potential solutions. However, these are also costly fixes. The hard truth for the agricultural industry is that the more emissions there are, the greater the cost is to offset them, buy greener technology, and pay the carbon tax.
In the authors’ low animal product consumption scenario, Canadians would reduce their meat and dairy intake from 57% in 2020 to 9% by 2050 while increasing their plant-based food intake from 43% in 2020 to 91% by 2050. In this scenario, agricultural emissions would drop by 49%, compared to only 28% in a high animal-consumption future. Annual GHG emissions would be 47 metric tons of CO2e as opposed to 66 metric tons of CO2e. A lower demand for cow meat would drive these changes, as raising cows for food is an environmentally costly practice. Similarly, with fewer animals consumed, there would be less need to grow and fertilize animal feed crops, another GHG contributor.
Regarding the economic benefits for humans, the authors note that despite a decrease in animal farming, Canada’s overall GDP seems to increase in all three animal product consumption scenarios. The authors suggest that as animal product demand decreases, the animal agriculture industry would shift to produce more plant-based products. The study also indicates the agriculture sector could save $12.5 billion in its effort to comply with Canada’s emissions targets if the country adheres to a low meat consumption scenario. Astoundingly, a large reduction in animal product consumption alone could be the difference between Canada meeting its 2030 goal or not.
The model that produced these predictions is known as gTech. The simulation predicts broad economic changes and contains many parameters such as the purchasing costs of green technologies, consumer technology preferences, market dynamics, and changes in the costs of technology over time. All of the equations are based on academic research, but the authors caution that no simulation of the future can ever be perfectly precise. Even so, predictions can help steer countries on the right path to achieving their climate promises.
This study is further evidence of something many advocates are already aware of: Achieving GHG reduction targets will likely require widespread dietary change. Although the authors focus on emissions, they note that increasing plant-based foods will also help countries manage pollution and mitigate public health threats. One benefit of this study is that it also addresses the concern that shifting away from animal agriculture will cause significant economic harm. Animal advocates can use this data as evidence that the economy — and the agriculture industry — can continue to thrive under a largely plant-based system.