Cutting Meat from our Diet as Climate Action

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We are what we eat! Changing our diet can help improve our health as well as the health of the planet. Global warming and climate change are the twenty-first century’s existential crises. The effects of climate change cause death, destruction and devastation of budgets and economies through intensified and frequent natural disasters. The solution is decarbonisation of the economy. How can our diet help reduce our carbon footprint? Isn’t it just fossil fuel use, heating and industrialization that causes environmental devastation, you think? But agriculture is actually the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs), mainly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, the main cause of global warming. Livestock and the industrialization of the various steps of agriculture lead to the emissions. Cutting and controlling meat and dairy in our diet, hence can have a significant effect in lowering GHG emissions.

Agriculture is what feeds us, but it is also the leading cause of deforestation and mass extinction of species. Most of the crop grown nowadays is food for livestock. As per current consumptions, according to ProVeg International, 70 billion animals are killed annually to feed the world population – that’s 10 livestock animals killed for per person. The environmental impact adds up in water consumption, carbon footprint as well as the multiple contributions to GHG emissions. Reducing our dependence on meat and dairy – a vegetarian and a vegan diet – can dramatically reduce GHG emissions, check deforestation and halt the loss of biodiversity.

According to the World Health Organization’s advisory on the link between cancer and other lifestyle disorders such as obesity and diabetes, “over-consumption of processed meat and red meat  is worrying and a major public health risk” like the one posed by tobacco. While the per capita annual meat and dairy consumption in South and Southeast Asian nations are still quite low, the huge populations of these regions adds up. Also, meat and dairy in the diet is aspirational – as people earn enough to live above the poverty line they aspire to eat more meat and dairy products like “rich people.” Thus in addition to elevating people from poverty, preventive and pre-emptive measures should be taken to avoid lifestyle disorders and excessive consumerism. Lifestyle disorders that kill millions and cost billions are linked to excessive processed foods and meat consumption. It would be a positive, pre-emptive move to put in place policy in developing countries, as populations progress to a better quality of life, to show that vegetarianism and veganism are the better and healthier options. This could bring in more income to smallholding farmers and reduce the cost of agriculture as it costs less to grow crops and plants rather than raise livestock exclusively. This could also help avoid public health crises such as China is facing with the generational upliftment of large sections of the society to “middle-class” “first world” lifestyles which led to an explosion in lifestyle disorders in proportion to the exponential increase in meat and dairy consumption. It is only now China has put in place dietary guidelines and policies to promote the reduction in meat and processed foods consumption.

In the quest to feed the billions, we are losing vital biodiversity. A recent report mentions that of all mammals on the planet, humans and livestock make up 96 percent! Slash and burn agricultural practices and deforestation to make way for farms in ancient and equatorial forests lead to devastating loss of plant and animal biodiversity. Introduction of livestock near ecologically sensitive zones and biodiversity hotspots also causes desertification, loss of grasslands and deforestation.

“Changing lifestyles” is mentioned rather than concrete policy recommendation to promote vegetarian and vegan diets in the drafts of the latest IPCC report despite the impact on biodiversity, climate change, healthcare costs and good health.  In India and developing countries of Asia, it’s still cheaper to opt for the healthier fast-food-free option, but in developing countries processed foods and fast food chains are cheaper than meat-free fresh foods. Thus when you are on a budget in the developed world, the unhealthy and environmentally devastating options are the only ones available. Agricultural and food processing companies are making huge profits off of these conditions. In addition, these companies’ GHG emissions and carbon footprints are massive. According to Daniel Brown, Head, Research & Science at ProVeg International, just the top five agricultural companies of the world emit more GHGs than a developed country like Germany.

While there is no dearth of pure vegetarian food and varieties across India, the vegan–dairy free option is still elusive. But promoting lower consumption of meat and dairy products is good for health, good for the pockets and good for the planet and as Ruchir Sharma, Head of Communications and Campaigns at ProVeg International puts it, it’s the “low-hanging fruit” in the quest to curb global carbon emissions. More campaigns in the developed world to have “No-Meat Mondays,” “Vegan Wednesdays” and promotions like the Vegan Afternoon Tea London Bus Tours, slowly but surely help cut the high per capita consumption of meat, processed meat and dairy products in urban areas.

In India and most developing countries of Asia, religion can help promote the shift to a meat-free lifestyle, as has been my personal experience. My parents and most of the older generation in my family have given up consuming meat for decades now. Religious sentiment as well as medical dietary guidelines have helped many of the Generation X shift towards a healthier, planet-friendly, plant-based diet as they got older. In my household, we don’t cook meat at home, and I am the only one who occasionally eats meat and that too only when I am eating out. Familial moves and peer pressure to get healthy can help drastically reduce per capita meat consumption.

Any vegetarian from India who travels abroad will tell you how difficult it is to find a vegetarian option. Just offering a vegan and vegetarian option, that too tasty and affordable ones, inspire people to opt for the cruelty-free, pocket-friendly, climate-friendly option. This observation has been supported by experiences in Portugal where it became policy to offer such options to promote a meat and dairy free diet. The experiences of the Fruitarian couple living in Bali demonstrate how more fruit and varieties of local fruits in the diet could be the answer to the obesity, diabetes and cancer epidemics. And the experiences of extreme athletes like Calle Alexander and Tim Sheriff on American Ninja Warrior and UK Ninja Warrior bust the myth that a vegan and vegetarian diet aren’t compatible with body building and strength training requirements.

Phillip Wollen in a viral clip of a debate in Australia vehemently puts forth multiple examples on the links between lifestyle disorders and the conditions of livestock farmed cruelly on an industrial scale. An increase in the number of vegans and vegetarians will ensure that even with organic farming and smallholders our current lands under cultivation can feed our going population. Just by reducing having to grow grains and feed for industrially farmed livestock can make more nutritious and cheaper vegetarian options accessible to all thus tackling the hunger epidemic as well. Bio-concentration of plastics, antibiotics, pesticides, insecticides and toxins is a concern in meat and dairy products as well and is symptomatic of the effects of the fast-paced anthropocene plastic age. A simple and progressive move towards a meat and dairy-free diet could therefore benefit the economy, people and the planet.

Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based analyst with a Master’s degree in International Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. She is the founder of Sunshine Millennium and is associated with civil society organizations such as the Red Elephant Foundation (REF), Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) and Climate Tracker.

Featured image: BBC