There’s an even bigger culprit to blame for climate change.
If you want to help the planet, you might want to start by changing your eating habits. The term “global warming” evokes images of coal power plants spewing thick black smoke into the air and large offshore oil refineries. Most politicians and ordinary citizens alike talk about our consumption of fossil fuels as the sole cause behind climate change, with the solution involving drastic reductions in our consumption of fossil fuels. But what most may find shocking is that those delicious chicken wings and hamburgers we eat daily could be more harmful to the environment than coal and oil.
Studies conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation estimate that animal agriculture is directly responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. To put that in perspective, the entire transport sector (including ships, plants, and automobiles) is responsible for 13% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
These studies also estimate that livestock and their byproducts are responsible for up to 51% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
The impacts of animal agriculture do not stop here. The livestock sector uses 55% of the world’s fresh water: a single hamburger takes about 660 gallons of water to produce, as much as a person uses in showering for two months. Livestock covers half the earth’s total land area. 90% of the deforestation in the Amazon forests is attributed to clearing land for cattle grazing.
This problem will get even worse as the world’s population grows to 9.7 billion by 2050. Not only that, but meat consumption is on the rise around the world, too. Developing countries in Asia and Africa are seeing an uptick in meat consumption thanks to strong economic growth rates and higher income levels. This rise in average per-capita consumption of meat is an even greater threat to the environment than the huge rise in population levels: a person on a vegan diet utilizes 1/18th the land and 1/13th the water a meat consumer utilizes.
The negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture are significant and will only get worse in the future. The greenhouse gas emission reductions obtained by renewable energy will be more than negated by the significant rise in animal agriculture-related emissions. Therefore, it is important for societies around the world to take active action to combat livestock-related emissions to have any chance at mitigating the dreadful impacts of climate change.
What to do then? One obvious way to solve this issue is for everyone to become vegan. But this, as we know, is wishful thinking given that meat is an essential part of the diet and culture for billions of people, and most importantly, it tastes delicious.
Meat substitutes made from soy are an increasingly popular way to consume meat. While some companies, such as Beyond Meat, have made notable strides in producing a non-meat alternative, these plant-based products still lack the same texture and appearance of raw meat.
One immediate solution is to to turn to the government to raise public awareness, as most individuals would be surprised to learn that their cheeseburger is as, if not more, harmful to the environment as their SUV. Running public service announcements to educate and inform people about the environmental impacts of meat consumption is a necessary first step to encourage people to adopt more environmentally friendly diets. Second, the U.S. government should increase its funding to both firms and researchers who are developing superior meat substitutes, ones that the public would gladly substitute for their usual meat-based dish. If this policy is properly acted upon, in the next decade we could witness a “Tesla of fake meat,” that will bring a viable alternative to the plates of millions of consumers.
Other countries have already begun to take action. China, whose population is responsible for 28% of the world’s meat intake, recently announced that it plans to cut its meat consumption by 50%. While the Chinese government has yet to specify further details, the government’s public announcement serves as the much-needed first step in raising awareness.
Diet is a very sensitive topic for most people, and few will appreciate the government meddling with their food choices. Reducing meat consumption will therefore be a gradual process, one that must begin with raising awareness.
Harshvardhan Sanghi is an undergraduate at Duke University.