Go vegetarian to fight climate change

Source: By PP Sangal: The Financial Express

The UN IPCC report ‘Climate Change and Land’, released in Geneva in August, stressed upon the disastrous impact of climate change on all forms of life. The ongoing UN Convention to Combat Desertification (COP14), inaugurated by PM Modi on September 9 in Greater Noida near Delhi, is an endorsement of this, and 122 countries (of 196) have agreed to become land degradation neutral by 2030 as specified in SDG Goal 15.3.

The rise in Earth’s surface temperature (since the middle of the 19th century) has already crossed the red line of 1.5-degree Celsius—a critical limit—and the average of surface and sea temperatures would cross this critical limit, as specified in Paris Climate Agreement (2015), sooner than later at the current rate of warming. We are already seeing adverse weather and climatic events of extreme rainfall, intense floods, as also drought, scorching heat and severe storms. The said report highlights two reasons for this distressing scenario.

One reason is land degradation, mainly due to human activities like deforestation, mining/quarrying, construction, roads, other infrastructure for economic development, human settlements for increasing population, etc. Even agriculture and related activities are degrading land, including groundwater resources. In India, recent adverse climatic events in Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Western Ghats are cases in point. Today, in India, about 96 million hectares (mha), or 29.3% of total area, is in degraded category, based on ISRO’s satellite technology to track the implementation of land degradation control policies. At the COP14, India has committed that 26 mha of degraded land (the earlier target was 21mha) will be restored by 2030.

The second reason the IPCC report emphasises is the ever-increasing global meat consumption and the resulting distorted land-use pattern to meet this requirement. So, how would eating less meat help in combating climate change? Also, would it be possible to do so, and how?

We must understand that the way we use our land at present, it is responsible for nearly 35% of carbon emissions and here dietary changes, based on scientific research, would have a total mitigation potential of 0.7-0.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2050. We know that huge deforestation carried out to create pastures for feeding cattle. The cattle then go to slaughterhouses for producing meat, which then undergoes further processing, preservation and packaging for marketing. This is a highly GHG-generation intensive process. Besides, a huge amount of electricity is used in the entire activity, which is mostly coal-based. The cattle itself is responsible for producing high quantities of methane, which has a far greater carbon footprint compared to carbon dioxide.

At the same time, while the entire process of agricultural production also generates significant GHG, but there is scientific evidence that its carbon footprint is much less compared to meat production. It must also be kept in mind that we need much less area of land globally to feed all the people if we were to use more of plant-based diet to feed them.

In this regard, the EAT Stockholm Food Forum in June had asserted that traditional Indian food, which is largely plant-based (seeds, nuts, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes), along with some meat and fish, is a sustainable and nutritious diet for humans, and also causes minimal damage to the environment. The EAT-Lancet Commission report on Food, Planet and Health is based on inputs from 37 experts from 16 countries including India, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research of Germany, and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health of the US. It also notes that red meat production has greatly contributed to land-use change, biodiversity loss and natural water depletion, and accounts for a large portion of carbon emissions.

The EAT-Lancet report says that global meat production has increased from 71 million tonnes annually in 1966 to 318 million tonnes in 2014, and may reach 455 million tonnes by 2050. In addition to the environmental impact, there is also a health impact. North America consumes 6-7 times the recommended amount of red meat consumption, while South Asian countries eat half the recommended amount. But of late red meat consumption in the US is going down because of some observational studies that show processed red meat is associated with cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, diabetes, etc.

More importantly, is it possible to reduce global meat consumption? Is it possible to make the world adopt a more plant-based vegetarian diet, as recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission? Here, we need to create awareness that such a diet improves health, reduces expenditure on health restoration, and also prevents animal abuse. Here, like it did with the International Solar Alliance, India should take the lead. To sum up, there is an urgent need for global adoption of a reference diet, as recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission report, in letter and spirit. We should aim to reduce consumption of red meat and sugar by 50% and increase consumption of vegetarian food by 100%, by transforming eating behaviours, increasing plant-based food production, and halving food wastage by 2050, if we wish to fight climate disaster.