Planting Seeds For A Compassionate, Sustainable Canadian Food System
Canada, a nation celebrated for its natural wonders, faces a pressing environmental challenge: it is warming at a rate twice as fast as the global average, with the northern regions experiencing a staggering threefold increase in temperatures. Extreme weather events, such as the closure of Ottawa’s iconic Rideau Canal for skating and record-breaking wildfires devouring over 10 million acres, have become distressingly commonplace. Canada has committed to ambitious climate goals, aiming for a 40-45% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
In the quest for sustainability, animal agriculture emerges as a critical yet often overlooked player. Globally, livestock farming significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation, and pollution, hindering our efforts to combat climate change. Despite its considerable environmental impact, the role of animal agriculture in contributing to climate change has received little attention in policy discussions and is rarely (only 7% of the time) included in media discussions of climate change. In fact, a recent report by AEL Advocacy in collaboration with World Animal Protection found that Canada’s current climate policies inadequately address the impact of animal agriculture.
The good news is that the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment could be addressed quite quickly if people in the Global North would embrace changes to the way that they eat. Extensive research indicates that reducing meat consumption and shifting to a plant-based food system –– focused on fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans –– represents the single most effective strategy for reducing our emissions. A global shift towards plant-based diets has the potential to reduce diet-related emissions by up to 70% and to do so much more rapidly than reductions in any other sector.
However, relying on individuals to make substantial dietary changes is challenging. Thus, proactive government intervention is essential. In our research paper, we explore barriers and solutions for encouraging a transition to plant-based diets through climate change policies. We argue that all levels of government can play a transformative role by aligning dietary guidelines with plant-based options, supporting farmers transitioning to sustainable alternatives, and integrating these efforts into comprehensive climate change strategies.
How Animal Agriculture Contributes To Climate Change
Animal agriculture plays a significant role in accelerating climate change by releasing substantial amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). Around 9% of global CO2 emissions, 35-40% of global CH4 emissions, and roughly 65% of global N2O emissions can be traced back to this sector. These last two trap heat at much higher rates than CO2 and stay in the atmosphere for less time, which is why their reduction can have a dramatic and immediate impact on GHG emissions. This means that reductions in the animal agriculture industry can mitigate climate change much more rapidly than reductions in CO2 from any other sector.
Beyond its GHG emissions, animal agriculture leads to a myriad of other environmental issues, including air and water pollution, deforestation, land degradation, and biodiversity loss.
The Power Of Plant-Based Diets
Scientific studies emphasize the pivotal role of plant-based diets in combating climate change. According to scientists from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, reducing or eliminating animal agriculture and shifting to a plant-based diet “is our best and most immediate chance to reverse the trajectory of climate change.” In fact, shifting away from meat consumption could rapidly and dramatically mitigate climate change.
The Current Legal Landscape
Unfortunately, current environmental protection legislation in most Canadian jurisdictions is woefully inadequate to deal with the environmental impacts of the animal agriculture sector. For example, the Government of Canada has effectively exempted animal agriculture from the federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (“the GGPPA”), which implements Canada’s federal carbon pollution pricing system. A similar pattern emerges in provincial legislation across the country. Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act, for example, does not generally apply to the discharge of contaminants if it is in accordance with “normal farming practices.”
In addition to exempting animal agriculture from climate and environmental protection laws and policy, the Government of Canada continues to actively promote, develop, and subsidize the growth of the animal agriculture industry. It is estimated that “the federal government provides subsidies of somewhere between $6 to $8 billion annually to the agriculture sector, with the bulk of those subsidies going to the dairy, egg, and chicken industries.” Unfortunately, these subsidies are geared towards helping the animal agriculture industry become more competitive and economically viable, rather than being tailored towards meaningful climate change mitigation and adaptation.
The question is, why has Canada failed to embrace diet change as a strategy to mitigate climate change?
The Path To Change
In our paper, we argue that the decision not to more actively encourage plant-based food production and consumption through climate change policy may be explained, in part, by a concept known as the “Overton window.” Named after U.S. policy analyst Joseph Overton, the “Overton window” is a term used to describe “the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.”
Since meat and dairy consumption is still the norm, governments may believe that plant-based diets have not achieved the degree of social acceptability to be considered a legitimate solution to climate change. This is supported by the fact that, for much of Western history, vegetarianism and veganism were often considered too “extreme” or even “radical” to be adopted by the mainstream population. However, the Overton window can shift over time due to various factors, such as changes in public opinion, new developments in science and technology, and political events.
In this instance, several factors may be forcing the window to shift.
First, there has been a growing acceptance of plant-based diets in recent years. A 2021 study conducted by Leger Research found that consumer demand for plant-based foods is growing in Canada and around the world. Recent data from 2021 shows that two-thirds of Canadians consume plant-based foods frequently, and 31% of Canadians plan to eat more plant-based foods within the next year.
Second, in keeping with these polls, there has been increasing public awareness of the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. Several popular documentary films, including Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) and #ForNature (2021) have explored the role of animal agriculture in climate change. Studies focused on the impact of animal agriculture are also getting media attention, including one from October 2023 which emphasizes the need for a shift to a plant-based diet and global phaseout of factory farming, noting that a failure to act will ultimately result in a scenario of irreversible climate change with widespread famine and disease, global devastation, climate refugees, and warfare.
New developments in science and technology may also be shifting the window. The development of high-quality plant-based meat/dairy alternatives, and cultivated meat, for instance, provides an opportunity to overcome this barrier.
Recommendations For Policymakers
It is time for policymakers to leverage the growing awareness of the harmful impacts to health, the environment, farmed animals, and human workers of animal agriculture, along with the rising availability of plant-based foods, and take seriously the need for a major food system transformation.
Our paper outlines several steps policymakers can take to successfully encourage a shift to more plant-based food consumption and production:
- Altering Choices Through Incentives And Shifting Subsidies: Emulating legislation like California Assembly Bill 1289 and the U.K. Agriculture Act can encourage change. Providing grants to farmers transitioning from animal agriculture to plant-based farming, along with amending existing programs to promote sustainable agriculture, can incentivize this shift.
- Targeting Intensive Animal Agriculture: Introducing moratoria on large factory farms, as proposed in several U.S. states, including Oregon and California, holds the potential to mitigate the most detrimental practices in intensive animal agriculture. This approach can facilitate a transition toward more sustainable farming practices.
- Guiding Choices By Changing Defaults: Soft policy options, such as setting plant-based defaults in public and institutional settings, leveraging social norms, and enhancing convenience, can shape food choices. Canadian federal and provincial governments could also implement institutional “soft solutions” that could help people transition, such as “Default Veg,” “Greener by Default,” “Meatless Mondays,” or “Plant-Powered Fridays” at all public institutions by means of procurement policies. The first two programs make plant-based food the default, while giving diners the choice to opt into meat/dairy, thereby “preserving choice.” Studies have shown that serving plant-based meals by default increases their selection by an average of 60%, thus reducing food’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and water footprint by 24%.
Shifting to a plant-based food system not only significantly contributes to mitigating climate change but also reduces environmental degradation and lowers human health costs. Canada stands at a unique crossroads, poised to lead the way towards a sustainable future. By embracing change and promoting plant-based agriculture, Canada can preserve its natural beauty for generations to come. As the seeds of this transformation are sown, they promise a greener, healthier, and more sustainable tomorrow for all Canadians.