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EM=C2 Eating Meat = Catastrophe2

A series of articles on climate change in Pacific Ecologist in 2002, made it clear that unless we alter our way of living, we can expect to see catastrophic changes on a planetary scale within a few years. Warnings were given on calamities ahead, with food insecurity problems, sinking islands and environmental refugees, which are already happening. The message of urgency was unequivocal.

Several years down the line, the situation has become even more critical. All over the world, scientists are speaking out, warning governments, leaders and the public alike, that we need to act, we need to change. Time is running out, fast. For those aware of the climate crisis, every other problem pales in comparison. It is something affecting, or that will affect, every person on the planet. There is no escaping the changes heading our way, unless we change our track, now. Yet observing what is going on, one sees many people still live as though there is no problem at all.

Feeling helpless, take action!
Do we feel helpless to make any noticeable change in averting the predicted disasters? Have we given up hope, leaving it instead to our governments to find all the solutions? Perhaps individuals feel powerless and think it’s up to the multi-billion dollar enterprises and our leaders to make the changes. There’s no denying the role of governments and leaders is crucial in alerting the public to the dangers ahead and actions
required to avert catastrophic climate change but it would be a mistake to believe individual action is ineffective. Nothing could be further from the truth.

One powerful action can have a significant impact on climate change. It’s a lifestyle change bringing more carbon savings and environmental benefits than probably all other lifestyle changes put together. Our diet, specifically, reducing or eliminating meat has largely been ignored but is now gaining recognition and earning its rightful place as one of the foremost influential factors in curbing climate change.


According to the recent United Nations report, Livestock’s Long Shadow,1 the livestock industry creates more greenhouse gas emissions than every mode of transport in the world, combined. In fact, meat production accounts for almost a fifth of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions,
a chilling figure. The impact of a meat-based diet on our individual carbon footprint has also been calculated. According to a team of researchers from Chicago University,2 we would reduce our individual carbon footprint more by switching to a plant-based diet (an estimated
reduction of one and a half tonnes of carbon emissions per person annually) than by switching to driving a hybrid car. For a family of four, there
could be a potential household reduction of carbon emissions of one tonne yearly, if the family car is changed to a hybrid and by six tonnes per year if the family cuts out animal produce from their diet. This explains the saying that a vegan driving an SUV is more environmentally friendly than a meat-eater riding a bicycle.

Cutting out meat, or at least significantly reducing it in our diet, will potentially have a far more rapid effect in reducing the effect of greenhouse gas emissions than relying on corporate industries to reduce their emissions. To understand this, one must appreciate the full impact of methane, the greenhouse gas generally less mentioned.
Ruminant livestock, with two billion being bred yearly for human consumption, are the number one source of methane. Methane is over 20
times as toxic as CO2 over a 100-year period, but over a 20-year period, it is 72 times as potent as CO2. In Australia alone, the cattle industry currently releases about three million tonnes of methane yearly, and their coal-fired power stations release about 180 million tonnes of CO2. Although it seems coal-fired power stations contribute much more to global warming than do cattle, when you multiply three million tonnes by 72, to calculate the correct potency of methane, compared to CO2, it becomes very clear that cattle and sheep actually contribute more to global warming than coal-fired power stations.3
That’s why relying on technology alone, as a solution to climate change, would lead to disaster. Multibillion dollar corporations do not have the incentive to drastically reduce their CO2 production in a timeframe that could allow us to avert the catastrophes heading our way. Also, about 20 percent of the carbon emitted today will last in the atmosphere more than a thousand years, after emissions are cut, altering the earth’s climate for many human generations,22 so a reduction in CO2 emissions, even if achieved, would not result in any noticeable change in temperature in the short to medium term.

Near climate tipping point
We are already close to “tipping point,”4 where a further small rise in Arctic temperature is predicted to be the catalyst for runaway global
warming.5 The potentially dangerous release of toxic amounts of methane gas from the ocean bed and thawing permafrost is a real and imminent danger. If temperatures continue to rise, the subsequent release of an estimated 400 Gigatons6 of methane could be the final tipping
point spelling the end of civilization as we know it. There is no time to lose in reducing our emissions dramatically and rapidly. There is a practical way this can be achieved, by focusing on reducing human-induced methane emissions.

Methane has a much shorter half life than carbon dioxide, less than a decade. The good news is, if we stop purposefully producing methane in the vast quantities we do today as a side-effect of animal agriculture, most of it would clear relatively rapidly over the next decade, reducing the risk of a dangerous rise in temperature that would almost certainly ensue if current livestock farming practices are allowed to continue. Although the average person holds no power over multi-billion dollar corporations, we do have great power to reduce methane emissions arising from livestock farming, simply by changing our dietary habits. Where there is less consumer demand for meat, the livestock trade will respond accordingly, producing less meat.7

While it is imperative to sharply reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, an emphasis on reducing methane emissions is a faster, more practical approach to address rising temperatures in the short term. The urgency with which we need to do this does not allow time to research methods to reduce methane emissions from livestock. Reducing the amount of meat we consume and numbers of animals bred for meat will reduce the amount of this powerful greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, which strongly affects global warming in the short term. On an individual level,
cutting out animal produce is the single most effective way to reduce our eco-footprint. On a collective level, the effects would be enormous.
Reducing dairy intake also has a significant impact on emissions. Over a one-year period, consuming a diet including meat and dairy has been calculated8 to cause greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving a car for 4758 km per person. Changing to organic meat and dairy does not solve the problem, emissions are still equivalent to driving a car 4377 km per person, yearly. Switching to a vegetarian diet (no meat but including dairy) is equivalent to driving 2427 km per person, yearly. But eliminating meat and dairy from the diet has the most powerful impact, with greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving a car only 629 km per person yearly. This is reduced even further to 281 km per person yearly, if eating organic produce. Calcium intake is more than adequate on a well-balanced vegan diet,9 without the harmful fats present in dairy produce, which contribute heavily to diseases like stroke, heart disease, and diabetes, so prevalent in countries with a western diet, typically with high meat and dairy intake.

If everyone in the UK ate no meat for just one day a week, it’s been calculated this would save 13 Megatonnes of CO2,10 resulting in greater carbon savings than taking five million cars off the road in the UK (10.4 Megatonnes CO2). If everyone in the UK abstained from eating meat for two days a week, they would save 26 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of almost 73 million return flights from London to Ibiza.


Closer to home, significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could also be achieved. New Zealand’s animal farming industry produces an
amazing 50% of the entire nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, a higher figure than any other country.11 It could be argued New Zealand’s total emissions comprise a very low proportion of the world’s emissions, but per capita, our level of emissions is high at 12th in the world, so there is a moral responsibility for more affluent nations to lead the way by showing a switch to a more plant-based diet is not only achievable but also sustainable in the long term. It is time for all nations to consider the survival of the human race as the priority, rather than short-term economic benefits.

Many benefits in less meat/dairy
Scientists, like Dr James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, politicians and other high profile figures are speaking out about the benefits of a plantbased diet. Amongst them is the chief of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, who has spoken widely about the excessive carbon emissions associated with the livestock industry and the environmental damage
caused by meat production.12 He advises we should aim to reduce our meat consumption by at least 50%, and says, “if we eat less meat, we would be healthy and so would the planet.”

Other issues make the widescale widescale transition to a more plant-based diet both logical and compelling. There is substantial medical evidence confirming that animal protein and fats in the diet are major contributors to heart disease, stroke and obesity and other chronic degenerative diseases. The health benefits of adopting a plant-based diet and reducing or cutting out animal fats from the diet, are now well
documented. The World Health Organization recommends a move away from saturated animal fats to unsaturated vegetable oil-based fats.13
Animal farming is the number one user of fresh water. Over 70% of the world’s fresh water is used in the agriculture sector and most of this is for meat production.14 In a world fast running out of freshwater supplies, what sense is there in using 2,400 litres of water to produce a single
hamburger,15 when a nutritionally complete vegan meal of tofu, rice and vegetables requires less than 100 litres of water?16 Animal farming is also the number one polluter of water. The main cause of huge oceanic dead-zones and pollution of rivers and streams is due to toxic effluent from animal farms.1
Animal farming is the number one cause of deforestation. Seventy percent of the Amazon rainforest has already been cleared to create pasture land for grazing cattle or to grow crops used to feed cattle.1 While biofuel production has angered many with wasteful use of forest land to produce 100 million tonnes of crop to use as biofuel for cars yearly, over 760 million tonnes of crops are produced annually to use as animal feed.17,18 That’s nearly half the world’s grain supply. With over 900 million people now starving,19 the grain we feed to animals could cover the global food deficit 14 times over.19 Farm animals don’t die of hunger, but every few seconds, one child does. Aside from using crops to feed farmed animals rather than humans, destruction of our forests for pastureland or production of feed crops is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, species disruptions, and dramatic changes in wind and rainfall patterns, contributing to floods, droughts and hurricanes.
For anyone concerned about our environment, the facts are very clear, there is no future for the human race on this planet as long as we continue to breed animals for meat. Our planet does not possess the resources to meet the demands of 57 billion beings every year (7 billion humans and 50 billion farmed animals). Moving to an animal-free diet would require a fraction of the resources needed for a meat-based diet. Problems of deforestation, water pollution, water scarcity, methane emissions and the whole array of environmental chaos caused by meat production, would be significantly reduced. The planet’s greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by one fifth, with the deleterious effects of methane disappearing over a decade.

Time is short. According to the United Nation’s GEO4 Report: “The need couldn’t be more urgent and the time couldn’t be more opportune… to act now to safeguard our own survival and that of future generations.”20 Technological advances take time, time we do not have. Neither do technological advances aiming to curb greenhouse gas emissions, address the environmentally destructive effects of animal farming:
deforestation, enormous water use in the face of rapidly dwindling fresh water supplies, water pollution, species disruption and biodiversity loss caused by livestock farming. Waiting for technology to avert catastrophic climate change and loss of millions of lives would be disastrous.
Switching to large-scale organic animal farming would not eliminate methane and nitrous oxide emissions, neither would it address deforestation issues or water usage, both of which remain high even with organic animal farming.

Cutting down, or even better, eliminating meat and preferably dairy, from our diets is the most powerful lifestyle change we can make as individuals to curb the disastrous effects of climate change. On a collective scale, according to the above calculations, effects would be significant. Media and governments can play their part by educating the public about environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet. Adopting initiatives like “Meatless Monday” would be a good start, a suggestion already referred to President Obama. According to food writer Michael Pollan, if all Americans eliminated meat from their diets one night a week, the environmental effect would be equivalent to taking “30 to 40 million cars off the road for a year.”21
For personal health, the benefits of adopting a plant-based diet are well established. For climate
change and our planetary emergency which calls for drastic and urgent change, it will mean the difference between life and death. Each one of us has a responsibility to act in the short time that remains to ensure a future for ourselves, our children, and our planet. It’s time to take action. The quickest way to slash our greenhouse gas emissions on an individual and planetary scale, and the most effective means of preventing more environmental devastation on a major scale, is to reduce or eliminate meat and dairy consumption. Let’s make the connection in time.

This article was orginally published in the Pacific Ecologist Winter 2009


Dr Aryan practices as a Consultant Physician in Respiratory Medicine in the Hutt Valley, New Zealand.  Dr Aryan is also interested in the many-fold and far-reaching effects of our diets, and particularly how our diet affects the environment. She has written and spoken widely about this topic and has presented her talk, Our Diet: Leading to a Sustainable Future or Killing Our Planet? in many venues around New Zealand. She has been interviewed about the link between diet and climate change by both local and national radio and newspapers and runs VegSense.


1. UN FAO Report, 2007, Livestock’s Long Shadow: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/

2. ‘It’s Better To Green Your Diet Than Your Car:’ New Scientist 2005 Issue 2530, p.19

3. Dr. Barry Brook, Director, Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability, Adelaide University, Australia: http://suprememastertv.com/bbs/board.php?bo_table=sos&wr_id=232

4. “Twenty years later: Tipping points near on global warming” http://www.guardian. co.uk/environment/2008/jun/23/climatechange.carbonemissions

5. “Melting  Methane   Thawed  Frozen   Planet”,   http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2008/05/29/2259091.htm

6. Walter K M, Zimov S A, Chanton J P, Verbyla D and Chapin III F S 2006 “Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as a positive feedback to climate warming”, Nature  443;  71-75,  7  Sept.   2006 http://www.alaska.edu/uaf/cem/ine/walter/publications_docs/Walter_nature05040.pdf

7. http://viva.org.uk/mediareleases/display.php?articlepid=177  Agriculture  in  the UK  2008:  Tables  and   Charts:   http://statistics.defra.gov.uk/esg/publications/ auk/2008/excel.asp

8. Source: Foodwatch: Greenhouse effect form different kinds of eating habits, per capita and per annum, presented in car kilometers. Spiegel Online International, 27 August 2008 http://tinyurl.com/557yxs

9. Vegetarian Diets: American Dietetic Association Position Paper, J Am Diet Assoc. 1997, 97:1317-1321

10. Pieter van Beukering, Kim van der Leeuw, Desirée Immerzeel and Harry Aiking (2008) Meat the Truth. The contribution of meat consumption in the UK to climate change. Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), VU University, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; HM Government (2006) Climate Change, the UK programme 2006 http://tinyurl.com/5q3vwx

11. NZ Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry: Climate Change: http://www.maf.govt.nz/climatechange/

12. “Global Warning! The Impact of Meat Production and Consumption on Climate Change”, Dr  Rajendra Pachauri, London, 8 Sep 2008,  http://www.ciwf.org.uk/includes/documents/cm_docs/2008/l/1_london_08sept08.pps

13. WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, 2004: www.who.int/dietphysical activity/en/

14. FAO of UN. www.fao.org/nr/water/infores.html ,‘Water 101: Water for Food’

15.  http://www.fao.org/nr/water/promotional.html

16. Water  Inputs  in  California  Food  Production,  Water  Education  Foundation September 1991, Chart E3, page 28, http://tinyurl.com/6kd6kx

17. The  Pleasures  of  the  Flesh, Monbiot,  2008:  http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/ai465e/ai465e04.htm

18. FAO 2008 “Food Outlook” http://www.fao.org/docrep/011/ai474e/ai474e01.htm

19. FAO   of   UN,   ‘Hunger    on    the   Rise’:  http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2008/1000923/

20. United Nations Environment Programme 2007: www.unep.org/geo/geo4

21. Michael Pollan’s “Food for Thought”: http://www.truthout.org/112708Y

22. Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions Proceedings National Academy of Sciences PNAS February 10, 2009 vol. 106 no. 6 1704–1709, Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, and Pierre Friedlingstein.

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