Less is More
The Climate Change Diet and Eating for Survival
I am a father, educator and activist. I would like to discuss how we can eat for surviving climate change by considering less as more. Climate change in happening right now and may get far worse in the near future. This year, 2017, is on track to be the hottest year on record. If it is, it will steal the record from 2016, even though this is not an El Nino year. Before 2016, the hottest year was 2015; before 2015, the hottest year was 2014, and so on. Do you notice the pattern here?
The Earth has already surpassed one degree Celsius rise in temperature from 1700 levels, and we're on track to go well beyond the 2C limit aimed for in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. The atmosphere now has more than 400 parts per million carbon dioxide, and the rate of increase is not slowing down. We may have already passed the point of safe return and it does not look good for my lifetime, and less so for my child. But giving up is not an option for either of us.
The good news is that it is not game over, yet. And since humans are the cause of climate change, we can also do something about it. For example, reducing our personal consumption is an effective way to minimize our greenhouse gas footprint. Each one of us have a new opportunity each day to make better choices in order to minimize our contribution to climate change. With education and awareness raising, it is possible to achieve significant reductions in emissions from diet, travel, and lifestyle. This is especially true for individuals in North America and Europe, who are by far the biggest consumers of energy, animal products, and cars in the world.
There is a tremendous upside to changing our over-consumption habits, and this alone should challenge each of us to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as we can each and every day. Less is more is so many ways, and we need to make conservation cool again. The less natural resources we consume in the present, is the more people will have access to in the future. The lower on the food chain that we consume with each meal, by eating plants instead of animals, the more biodiversity there will be to enjoy. Lower personal energy use, travel and meat intake equals less global heat, and reduced climate vulnerability.
Beyond the personal level, at the community and regional levels, one positive development is the ongoing transition to renewable energy. National policies are slowly shifting away from the use of fossil fuel in energy production and transportation. The 2015 Paris Climate Accord's target of two percent annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is a good start, and despite withdrawal by the American administration, most major cities and states are trying to do their part to lower US emissions. There is vast scope for improvement, and we are gradually turning the corner on the carbon economy and headed toward renewable energy.
The bad news is that even if individuals and countries cut down fossil fuel consumption to zero by 2050 or 2100, this will not stop global warming. Going 100 percent renewable will help to reduce greenhouse gas significantly, no doubt, but there is another ingredient in our consumption footprint that needs to be lowered as well.
That component is our diet, specifically greenhouse gases from animal production, which is around 15 percent of total emissions, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The footprint from our carnivorous habit is greater than transportation, including emissions from all cars, buses, boats and planes combined. Moreover, the FAO's 15 percent livestock figure exclude emissions from the seafood and pets industries, and deforestation. According to NASA, clearing land to raise livestock and feed crops is one of the leading causes of deforestation. So we are literally destroying the Earth’s lungs and precious ecosystems to raise farmed animals.
Like fossil fuel consumption, there has been a steady rise in meat intake, with attendant release of greenhouse gases. If fully accounted for, greenhouse gas from carnism may equal to that of energy production. But unlike efforts to limit the expansion of the carbon economy, the animal agriculture industry is promoted at all levels, while their emissions are being ignored by the scientific community and the popular media alike.
The farm animal industry produces more greenhouse gas than all of transportation, so it is not inconsequential. In addition to carbon dioxide, animal production emits half of the world’s emissions of methane, according to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and the second major contributor to global warming.
Remarkably, emissions from farmed animals are excluded from the Paris Climate Accord, and global consumption is set to double by 2050. While it is critical for us to lower fossil fuel use in energy and transportation, unless these are accompanied by significant reductions in dietary emissions, humans will continue to drive catastrophic global warming.
Similar to the environmental and cultural devastation initiated by the production of oil tar sands in Canada, there are severe ecological consequences associated with animal production, including deforestation, habitat loss, species extinction, soil and water pollution, landlessness, poverty, disease, sickness and death. The impacts on soil, forests, and oceans reduces Earth's capacity for absorbing carbon dioxide and leads to even more rapid warming.
Soy is an important base ingredient of the world’s meat production, and approximately three quarters of the world’s soy goes to animal feed. Soy production has left an enormous scar on the Earth’s surface, more than 400,000 square miles (one million square kilometers), equivalent to the total combined area of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Jaguars, giant anteaters, sloths and thousands of other creatures have been affected in Brazil and elsewhere.
Bolivia lost 430,000 hectares of forest per year over the previous decade. Although Bolivia is one of the least economically developed countries in South America, its greenhouse gas emissions levels per capita equal or exceed those of many European countries. More than 80 percent of those emissions come from deforestation. Alarmingly, crop yields are set to decline with rising temperatures, so more land and water will have to be used in the future to grow the same amount of animal feed.
Despite its importance, diet and personal consumption is so taboo that climate scientists and environmental activists rarely make reference to this topic. Take for example, Bill McKibben and 350.org, the leading climate advocacy group in the world. The organization has conducted dozens of climate campaigns, including a 100 percent renewable energy crusade, but they do not have a single program to address agricultural emissions. This is not surprising considering that environmental activists and green organizers are avid consumers of animal flesh so there is a huge conflict of interest present.
Al Gore's two movies on climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and “An Inconvenient Sequel,” have both omitted greenhouse gas emissions from carnism. Within mainstream climate activism, reducing demand for animal products is not presented as part of the solution. This view is short-sighted since the increasing dependence on animal products in diets worldwide is a major self-inflicted handicap in our capacity to successfully negotiate climate change. Maybe, instead of using vast amounts of water and land to grow crops to feed to animals, to then feed to people, if we just eat the crops instead we could save ourselves from hunger and global warming.
The scientific community is slowly coming around. James Hansen, former head of NASA and one of the world's most famous climate scientist is lead author of a 2017 article titled, "Young People’s Burden: Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions." The paper admits that ruminant production is a concern and added, "we would be remiss if we did not point out the potential contribution of demand-side mitigation that can be achieved by individual actions as well as by government policies."
America’s addiction to cheap meat, fed on corn and soy in vast indoor factories, comes at a high cost in human health problems and environmental destruction. None of these costs are paid for by the companies that produce the meat and feed, such as Tyson, Cargill and ADM. If the costs of pollution, habitat destruction, losses to fisheries and tourism, climate change and impacts on human health were fully accounted for, meat would be a luxury food.
The era of climate migration is here and rather than building walls, nations have to cooperate for climate mitigation and disaster recovery. The climate crisis is a global one that demands a global response. We can devolve into nationalist xenophobia or combine our efforts in a more effective international response. This crisis requires individual change and collective action, and maintaining an acute awareness in every choice we make that less is more.
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