A rise in the global consumption of meat will have major consequences for both the environment, and for our own health, according to a new paper published in Science. 95bFM’s Jack Marshall spoke to Massey University Professor Ralph Sims about the report and what eating meat does to the environment.
Ralph Sims is a Professor in Bioenergy at Massey University. He is an expert in renewable energy and biofuels.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Jack Marshall: Would you be able to distill the findings of the paper for us?
Ralph Sims: The paper really confirmed what we probably already knew, that if you eat too much meat it can be unhealthy for you in terms of potential heart disease and colon cancers and suchlike, and that is strongly linked with a meat diet. But it also showed that the environmental impacts of producing meat are pretty high in terms of greenhouse emissions. And in terms of greenhouse gases, which is my main area, we know the whole food supply chain of the world involves about thirty-two percent of the end-use energy, that includes producing the food and transporting, processing and cooking it, and that relates to twenty-two percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. And we know that if we are going to meet the Paris Agreement and stay below two degrees centigrade temperature rise then the food sector has to play its part. And meat is a main producer of those greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from ruminant animals, sheep and beef like we grow in New Zealand for animal protein as well as meat protein, and those animals are producing methane at the same time as they are digesting their food, their pasture, whatever, and that is adding to the greenhouse gases.
JM: In this article it points out that as countries and economies get richer, the diet often moves to more meat and dairy-based products and it even has a projection saying that meat consumption could double by 2050. What kind of impact would a doubling of the meat consumption globally have on the world’s environment?
RS: Well this is the real conflict, and it was Barack Obama who summed it up nicely when he said we have got to solve the problem of feeding the billions of people on the planet and we know we need something like seventy percent more food by 2050 because of the growing population and the growing meat demand and protein demand and so forth. So we have got to feed the billions of people without destroying the planet in the process and they were key words really. So the whole of food production as we know it now is actually a very unsustainable process and the issues are putting nutrients in one end, feeding in freshwater, seventy percent of water extraction goes into the agricultural production processing system and at the same time loads of fossil fuels are going in there as well. So we end up failing to consume one-third of the food we produce, the nutrients end up in the sewage systems and the landfills and then pour more phosphate and nitrogen in the top end again. When you look at it, it is totally unsustainable. So we have got to turn it around and look at it as what we call a ‘circular economy’: recycle water, use renewable energy, recycle the nutrients, and at the same time move away from a meat diet. And that is the real challenge because that requires consumer change, but if people realise that they are healthier by eating less meat and they are doing good things with the planet in reducing their carbon footprint then maybe we can get that trend there.
JM: In this review they site a place like Denmark where they have actually put higher taxes on meat and they have seen reduced consumption as a result. I was wondering: are there better ways out there than just to tax things more? How do we respect individual autonomy without resorting to taxes?
RS: Taxes is one way to get a message across, but it is really education and to let people understand the good things and the bad things about nutritious food. And we know there are obesity problems in New Zealand, we know that there is fast food being consumed at a far greater degree than what it should be, we also know there are a lot of substitutes coming in fairly rapidly. If you go to restaurants now, every one of them has a vegetarian option which wasn’t the case ten-fifteen years ago, and we know there is a greater interest in vegetarianism. I am a reducetarian which means I still eat a little bit of meat and milk products but I consume less than what I used to in the past but I haven’t become a full vegetarian. For my health and animal welfare reasons and planetary reasons, I am a very low consumer of meat now. In New Zealand we can buy chicken that is not chicken that is made from p-protein. Elsewhere in the world, Air New Zealand was in the headlines providing hamburgers on their flights to the US which are not made from meat, they are synthetic meat which taste and look like meat and are very tasty. So there are substitutes coming along. Israel has just done a three-hundred million dollar deal with China to provide synthetic meat across to the Chinese to supplement real meat and this industry is growing really rapidly. So it is something New Zealand farmers need to keep a lookout on, because if the world does change as rapidly as what some people think to a non-meat and non-animal protein diet then we need to be part of it. There will still be niche markets that farmers should be looking towards for high-quality grass-fed beef as opposed to feedlot beef, but from a climate change point of view a kilogram of beef or lamb probably produces forty or fifty kilograms of C02 or greenhouse gases in the growth of that animal in looking after it before it is slaughtered. Poultry and pigs are a lot less because they are monogastric animals that don’t produce the same amount of methane as the stomachs that digest in their food. And fish is a lot lower too. But if you go to the vegetable proteins then that is maybe two to three kilograms and that is where the synthetic meat and the vegetarian diets come in because they have a much lower carbon footprint.
JM: A large part of this suggests a lower meat consumption not just for philosophical reasons but for environmental reasons and I was wondering what kind of meat consumption level is sustainable for the planet?
RS: From a planetary point of view, it varies so much by cultures. I mean if you are a member of the Maasai tribe in Kenya then you are totally meat-dependent and there is no way we could expect those people to move to a vegetarian diet because for thousands of years they have produced and eaten their own meat. On the other hand, there are people who are eating meat three times a day every day of their lives, which are relatively short lives I guess on average because they are eating too much. So there is no simple answer to the question, it is just a case of making everybody aware that when meat is consumed there is an environmental impact as a result. And it is water as well: there is a lot of water that goes into keeping animals alive as there is in irrigating crops to feed animals and humans, but water shortages under climate change could be something in the future to be aware about too. So it is really creating an awareness that there are other solutions for having good food, tasty food, and we don’t need to eat meat all the time. So how much would be the optimum amount of meat is very difficult to say. But, like I say, everybody has got their chance to reduce rather than go to the extreme of not eating meat at all if they don’t wish to do that.