Eating Climate Change

Animal agriculture is one of the main causes of climate change, with different sources claiming that our meat production and consumption produces between 14.5% and 51% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. The tremendous effect of climate change on the economy and society has received a great deal of attention in the media and in politics over the last few decades, but not enough action has been taken. So far, the debate in politics has mainly focused on CO2 emissions caused by the energy and car industry – could society contribute more by focusing on eating less meat and dairy?

Recent documentaries such as Food Choices have examined the world’s diet by talking to experts and scientists around the globe. The conclusion: our food choices are a major culprit in causing climate change. But this is good news, as we as consumers have the power to decide what we want to eat and can actually change our food consumption pretty easily. In fact, this might be one of the easiest and most powerful ways to fight climate change. So, where do we stand right now and who is eating what?

The picture we see when we look at food statistics reveals divergent developments. According to a report by the OECD, global meat production will be 16% higher in 2025. On the other hand, it seems that more people are changing their food consumption and are following vegetarian or vegan based diets, in particular millennials. These trends are evident in the USA: with nearly 200kg of meat consumed per capita, it is one of the countries with the highest meat consumption in the world. However, consumer behaviour is changing. The number of vegetarians doubled between 2009 and 2011, resulting in approximately five percent of U.S. adults, or 16 million people, becoming vegetarian.

Apart from veganism and vegetarianism, many people have also become more aware of what they consume and have started to change their behaviour step by step. Reducetarians, for example, are trying to reduce their meat, fish and dairy consumption without fully adopting abstinence. There are also a growing number of fans of ‘Meat-free Mondays’, an initiative launched by Paul McCartney and his family which follows a similar line of thinking.

Environmental activists protest in Melbourne in connection with the 2009 COP15 conference in Copenhagen. Source: Takver, Flickr.
Environmental activists protest in Melbourne in connection with the 2009 COP15 conference in Copenhagen. Source: Takver, Flickr.

Interestingly, it is not just individual habits that are changing. Entrepreneurs are also leading the fight by developing new business ideas to help spread the practice of sustainable eating, and Venture Capitalists in the US are increasingly investing in food start-ups. The company Impossible Foods, which is developing new technologies to transform our consumption towards a plant based diet, has collected $182M in funding. The company is trying to create foods that taste like meat but are produced from plants. Their mission is simple: to “make delicious meats that are good for people and the planet”. It sounds like a great deal for meat lovers, and, indeed, it could make it easier for people to change their diet without a feeling of abstinence.

Companies like Impossible Foods are popping up everywhere. The 2017 global food and drink trends show that the share of food and drink launches with vegetarian or vegan claims have increased globally. From 2010 to 2016, launches containing vegetarian claims increased by 25%, while those containing vegan claims rose by a massive 257%. Thus, the total share within the new launches was 11% for the vegetarian products and 4% for the vegan products. This shows that the supply in the industry for meat-free products is increasing.

An analysis of the investments in US food start-ups showed that the most money was invested in companies aiming to replace animal products. This could be another indicator that no-meat products will continue growing and expanding in the future. Among the investors is Bill Gates, who is well-known for his engagement and investments in fighting climate change. In his blog he writes “…we need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources. Some exciting new companies are taking on this challenge.” Gates is optimistic, but he also points out the problem of the world’s growing population and the overall projected increase in meat consumption.

Source: Biosci Thailand, Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Biosci Thailand, Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, changing our consumption is not the only way of fighting climate change. Smart solutions within politics and economics have to tackle the different challenges and causes. However, in light of the USA possibly stepping back from the 2015 Paris Agreement, more responsibility rests on the shoulders of societies. As described, celebrities and food start-ups are pushing forward to meet this challenge and to accelerate a shift in the mind-set of consumer food behaviour. Nevertheless, the statistics do not yet show considerable outcomes: the majority of people in most countries are still eating a lot of meat and the demand for meat is continuously growing, most significantly in developed countries. Most people in such countries have the resources to make a conscious choice in what they eat, but environmental concerns do not seem to be the most important factor in their decision making. Food preferences are deeply anchored in societies’ food cultures and the supply of food industries with meat and dairy products. Marketing is also reinforcing this behaviour.

Time will tell if investments in nonmeat start-ups and a more sustainable food production in general will match with future consumer demands. If so, they can have a significant impact and contribution in the fight against climate change.

Lukas Kettemer

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