Would giving up meat really help save the planet?

The 360 shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening:

With global population levels set to reach close to 10 billion people by 2050, the ecological impact of the food we eat has come under intense scrutiny.

Scientists believe human food consumption is having a devastating effect on the environment due to a combination of greenhouse gas emissions, overuse of land and pollution from the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides.

One of the key areas under investigation is the meat industry.

Despite increased awareness of veganism and vegetarianism, the percentage of people in the U.S. who abstain from eating meat is still small. America is among the most carnivorous nations on the planet, consuming an estimated 222 pounds of meat per person a year.

Last month, the U.N. warned that high consumption of meat in the West is fueling global warming, and said switching to a plant-based diet would help fight climate change.

Why there’s debate:

Supporters of restricting meat consumption say it would drastically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. The agricultural industry is responsible for 11 percent of global greenhouse emissions, mostly from livestock production. A large portion of that comes from methane created by cow burps, but things like manure, fertilizer, shipping and refrigeration of meat also create a significant amount of carbon. The need for grazing land also leads farmers to destroy large swaths of forest, reducing the plants from extracting carbon out of the air.

Critics argue that eating less meat will have less impact relative to potential changes in other sectors, like the energy industry. Others argue that pushing a completely meat-free diet is unrealistic. Asking people to instead reduce how much meat they eat or replace beef in their diet with poultry can still have a substantial effect.

There's also some evidence that a zero meat diet may not reduce emissions as much as initially thought because vegetarians tend to replace the meat in their diet with other animal products like eggs and dairy.

What’s next:

For those who wish to decrease or completely eliminate the amount of meat they eat, a number of options have come onto the market recently to make the move easier. Plant-based burgers have exploded in popularity over the past year or so. Though they may not be much healthier than beef, the environmental impact of producing them is significantly lower.

Perspectives

Supporters

Giving up meat is essential to curb climate change.

“We have to eat less meat. There’s no two ways around that unless we just decide to give up on climate change.” — Jonathan Safran Foer, Slate

It’s not necessary to completely eliminate meat to make an impact.

“No one’s suggesting you become a vegan or vegetarian (though that can be beneficial), but you can make a dramatic impact by beginning to scale back. Beef and lamb are associated with particularly high carbon emissions, so maybe begin your journey there.” — Samantha Cassetty, NBC News

People could be fed using less land if individuals cut down on eating meat.

“Some diets require more land and water and lead to higher emissions than others. For example, diets that are high in grains, nuts and vegetables have a lower carbon footprint than those that are high in meat and they lead to better health outcomes.” — Jim Skea, co-chair of the working group which produced a U.N. report

Small decisions can make a big difference.

“Different foods have vastly different carbon footprints. Swap your steak for fish, for example, and you get an eight-fold reduction in emissions. And if you’re game to switch that to beans or lentils your emissions drop to near zero. It really gets interesting when lots of us start making similar changes.” — Andy Murdock, Vox

Governments can create incentives to promote non-meat farming.

“Farmers need incentives to tread lightly on the land they work, while manufactures, retailers and consumers need disincentives to make, sell and eat the highly processed foods that we know are good for no one’s health.” — Julian Baggini, The Guardian

The burden of meat reduction falls on wealthy countries.

“...in a world racked by malnutrition and hunger [eating less meat] can be only part of the answer to rising temperatures. But many people in high-income countries will need to make more ambitious cuts in the amount of meat, eggs and dairy products they consume.”
— Alex Kirby, Climate News Network

Skeptics

Cutting out meat won’t have a significant climate impact.

“There’s an even more fundamental problem with the idea that we replace steak dinners with tomato steaks. The truth is we can’t stop temperature rises with our diets.” — Bjorn Lomborg, USA Today

Meat in diets is often replaced by other environmentally harmful foods.

“A standard vegetarian diet doesn’t replace all meat with vegetables. Instead, it relies heavily on dairy, eggs, and other animal-based products that require a lot of land and produce a lot of emissions.” — James Temple, MIT Technology Review

Going vegan can still have a negative effect on the environment.

“Unless you’re sourcing your vegan products specifically from organic, ‘no-dig’ systems, you are actively participating in the destruction of soil biota, promoting a system that deprives other species, including small mammals, birds and reptiles, of the conditions for life, and significantly contributing to climate change.” — Isabella Tree, The Guardian

It would take the whole planet to make a difference.

“It would help if consumers — as well as governments looking to minimise greenhouse-gas emissions — knew the true costs of all foods, including the hidden costs to the environment. The food industry and outside scientists need to develop accurate ways of measuring those costs.” — Jessica Fanzo and Shreya Das, Bloomberg

A rush to a plant-based diet is unrealistic.

“Too fast or radical a shift towards 'plant-based' diets risks losing realistic and achievable goals, such as increasing the benefits of natural grazing and embracing farming techniques that reduce the wasteful feeding of crops to animals, lower climate impact and enhance biodiversity.” — Martin Cohen and Frederic Leroy, The Conversation

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images