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Evaluating the impact of meat consumption on health and the environment

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British-produced agriculture is critical for food production and food security. However, unsustainable farming practices and poor choices have had negative impacts on the environment and been a considerable contributor of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with N2O and methane from soils and livestock the main emitters in the agricultural sector. In this article we evaluate some of the key impacts associated with livestock farming and meat consumption.

Evaluating the impact of meat consumption on health and the environment

A new report “Land Use: Reducing Emissions and Preparing for Climate Change” by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in November 2018 outlines some of the key environmental issues associated with land use, with a major component of the report focused on agriculture and the impact of livestock farming. How land is used and managed is vital to the UK’s ability to deliver deeper emissions reductions and improve resilience to the effects of climate change over the long-term.

From an environmental perspective, livestock farming accounts for the majority of agricultural GHG emissions, both in the UK and globally. A recent report published in October 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that livestock supply chains account for around 14.5% of global anthropogenic GHG emissions, with cattle responsible for about two thirds of this. Similarly, in the UK in 2016, 11% of all UK GHG emissions were emitted by the British agriculture and land sectors (summarised in this CCC infographic), with approximately 58% directly attributable to the rearing of cattle and sheep.

It is clear from these statistics that current levels of meat consumption is having a dramatic impact on the environment. The CCC report suggests that agricultural emissions in the UK could be reduced considerably through increased productivity, improved animal health, alternative land use and a shift of diets towards healthier eating guidelines. The study supports the view that human consumption of red and processed meat products has a severely negative impact on the environment and on health, suggesting that a combination of diet shifts and a subsequent reduction in the number of livestock animals farmed in Britain could contribute to a better environment and improved health.

Other research has also shown that a move away from diets containing high levels of animal products towards ones that are plant based, will have a significant impact on reducing global GHG emissions. The IPCC also recognise the need for behavioural changes, estimating that dietary shifts alone could contribute one fifth of the necessary mitigation required to keep global warming below 2°C. Likewise, the International Resource Panel (IRP) estimates that a 50% reduction in meat and dairy consumption worldwide could contribute up to a 40% reduction in global GHG emissions.

These studies also raise another key benefit, whereby livestock feed has a notable environmental impact, which will be subsequently reduced if meat consumption is reduced. The IRP – which is part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – found that farmed livestock consume 35% of total crops produced globally. From an environmental perspective, a reduction in the level of meat consumption and its farming will mean more land is available to produce plant based food for people.

In the interests of health, a move away from meat heavy diets will have a dramatic impact. The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies beef, lamb and pork as carcinogenic when eaten in processed form, and as probably carcinogenic when eaten unprocessed. These three types of meat have also been linked to increased rates of coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) recommends a maximum of 70g of red and processed meat per day.

Reducing meat consumption to around two portions per week could significantly limit the health risks associated with excessive meat consumption to the point of potentially preventing almost 6,000 deaths per year in the UK. Globally, a shift in diets could create a greater focus on ensuring food security and health in response to the environmental constraints created by climate change. This focus is particularly important when it is considered that globally more than 800 million people experience food poverty, over 2 billion people suffer malnutrition, and over 2 billion people are overweight or obese. Although recent trends suggest a small increase in both the number of vegetarians in the UK, as well as the number of flexitarians (i.e. those who only have meat a few days per week), a huge shift in behavior is needed to address the impacts of current rates of meat consumption. Research by the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food suggests that the taxing of red and processed meat products (e.g. a “health tax”) could be one option to reduce meat consumption for the benefit of health and the environment. The research, based on modelled scenarios, suggests that if the optimum health taxes were introduced, the consumption of processed meat would decline by about two portions per week in high-income countries and by 16% globally.

Any moves towards a national change in consumer diets and reduction in meat consumption – and therefore demand – will ultimately see a decline in livestock numbers. This will have a wide reaching impact on those farmers whose businesses depend on livestock production, and which other forms of agriculture are not an option. The new Agriculture Bill, due next year as we withdraw from the European Union, sets out a policy of public money for public good. This means, subject to the future priorities of the government, that financial support could possibly be available to farmers as they move towards planting trees and reducing livestock or other measures to protect the environment and health. Initiatives will become more visible over the coming months as the Agriculture Bill passes through parliament.

For more information on the impact of livestock farming and meat consumption on the environment, contact Colin Morgan in the ADAS and the Sustainable Food and Farming team.

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