By Shaun Bartone
At the UN Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow, COP26, the raising of livestock was identified as a driver of carbon emissions, turning carbon-sequestering forests and peatlands into grazing land for livestock, and turning arable land that grows food to be directly consumed by people into feed for beef and dairy cattle, pigs, and chickens.
The UN Conference on Climate Change (COP26), held in Glasgow in early November, began to address the critical role of agriculture and its contribution to global carbon emissions. The production of livestock is a driver of land-use changes that also drive up carbon emissions, turning carbon-sequestering forests and peatlands into grazing land for livestock, and turning arable land that grows food for people into feed for beef and dairy cattle, pigs and chickens. Furthermore, governments subsidize the cost of meat consumption by providing billions of dollars in subsidies for agricultural policies that support beef and meat production.
The combination of agricultural policies that support meat production and consumption, and the demand for meat-heavy diets, contributes substantially to the total global emissions of carbon and carbon equivalents, methane and nitrogen. A report by Compassion in World Farming, titled “Breaking the Taboo: Why Diets Must Change to Tackle the Climate Emergency,” provides evidence that global food systems concentrated on meat production contribute as much as 75 percent of total carbon equivalent emissions from agriculture.
A study published in the journal Science in 2020, cited in the report (p. 3), concludes that even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, current trends in global food systems would make it difficult to meet the 1.5°C target and even to stay under the 2°C target, the maximum rise in global temperature posited by of the Paris Accord. The study shows that moving to plant-rich diets could reduce emissions from food systems by 47 percent compared with Business As Usual (BAU).
The Compassion in World Farming report states that the food sector produces up to one-third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and 75 percent of agriculture emissions are from livestock production: beef and dairy cattle, pigs, and chickens. Furthermore, the production of feed for livestock displaces the production of food—grains, pulses, vegetables, and fruits—for direct human consumption. This drives up the cost of basic food staples and increases food insecurity for the developing world, contributing to hunger and malnutrition.
Food consumption patterns must change to meet climate targets
Climate scientists report that food consumption patterns will have to change if we are to meet the Paris Agreement climate targets. Many studies show that reducing consumption of meat and dairy leads to substantial reductions in GHG emissions. This is because animal products generally generate substantially higher emissions per unit of nutrition produced than plant-based foods (see Table 2).
Research published in Nature shows that globally, BAU in food production and consumption will lead to an 87 percent increase in food-related GHG emissions by 2050 (compared with 2010). The study reports that dietary changes towards more plant-based (flexitarian) diets could reduce food-related GHG emissions in 2050 to below their current level.
Transforming food systems: decreasing emissions, regenerating living systems
According to the report (p. 9), “Studies show that reducing global meat consumption would produce multiple benefits in the form of reduced use of resources and a decrease in environmental degradation. In particular, a decrease in the consumption of meat and dairy would lead to reduced use of arable land, freshwater, energy, and pesticides as well as reduced nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, deforestation, and soil erosion, and restore habitat for wildlife.” Under current food consumption patterns, more than three-quarters of the diet-related GHG emissions (77 percent) were associated with animal-sourced foods consumed worldwide. The report adds that in 2030, adoption of “any of the four [plant-based] healthy diet patterns worldwide would reduce diet-related GHG emissions by 41–74 percent” (p. 6).
The Compassion in Farming report suggests that taxing meat consumption could reduce the demand for meat products and offset the environmental costs of meat production. But instead, governments around the world are not only failing to reduce emissions from the meat sector, they are actually subsidizing the production of meat, which encourages the consumption of cheap meat.
According to recent studies, the U.S. government spends up to $38 billion each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries, while less than one percent of that sum is allocated to support the production of fruits and vegetables. Most agricultural subsidies go to farmers of livestock and a few staple crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton, with payments skewed toward the largest producers. Corn and soy inputs, in particular, are heavily subsidized for the production of meat and processed food by some of the world’s largest meat and dairy corporations.
If we are going to meet our climate goals, reduce emissions of carbon, methane, and nitrogen, restore land use to carbon sequestration, and support wildlife habitats, we must reduce our consumption of meat and dairy products, both from ruminants (beef and dairy cattle) and monogastric animals (pigs and chickens).
In November 2019, a statement entitled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” was signed by over 11,000 scientists. The statement (cited in the report, p. 7) suggests six critical steps to lessen the worst effects of climate change. One of these steps states: “Eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products … can improve human health and significantly lower GHG emissions. Moreover, this will free up croplands for growing much needed human plant food instead of livestock feed, while releasing some grazing land to support natural climate solutions,” such as reforestation.
Shaun Bartone has been practicing and studying Buddhism for a dozen years in South Asian traditions. Shaun has an MSW in Community Planning, MA in Sociology and completed doctoral research in Environmental Sociology. Shaun lives in Worcester, MA. Shaun is the creator and editor of Engage! Magazine, www.engagedharma.net.
 Compassion in World Farming, p. 5. The table is from Springmann et al, 2018. “Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits.” Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0594-0).
 “Removing the Meat Subsidy: Our Cognitive Dissonance around Animal Agriculture.” https://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/removing-meat-subsidy-our-cognitive-dissonance-around-animal-agriculture. Columbia University: Journal of International Affairs.