I am now in a very hot and humid Kyoto having left Australia yesterday in…
This is Part 6 of a series on Deep Adaptation, Degrowth and MMT that I am steadily writing. I have previously written in this series that there will need to be a major change in the composition of output and the patterns of consumption if we are to progress towards a sustainable future. It will take more than cutting material production and consumption. We have to make some fundamental shifts in the way we think about materiality. The topic today is about consumption but a specific form – our food and diets. Some readers might know that there has been a long-standing debate across the globe on whether a vegetarian/vegan diet is a more sustainable path to follow than the traditional meat-eating diet. Any notion that the ‘meat’ industry is environmentally damaging is vehemently resisted by the big food corporations. Like anything that challenges the profit-seeking corporations there is a massive smokescreen of misinformation created to prevent any fundamental change. New research, however, makes it clear that we can achieve substantial reductions in carbon emissions by abandoning meat products in our diets and the gains are disproportionately biased towards the richest nations. I have long argued that I find a fundamental contradiction in those who espouse green credentials and advocate dramatic behavioural shifts to deal with climate change while a the same time eating meat products. The recent research supports that argument. So Greenies, give up the steaks and the chickens and get on your bikes and head to the greengrocer and start cooking plants.
In 1971, American author Frances Moore Lappé published – Diet for a Small Planet – which detailed really for the first time that our dietary choices impacted on our natural environment and influenced food security across the globe.
She advocated a vegetarian diet and argued that beef cattle production was a ‘protein factory in reverse’.
The food activism in that period was linked to all the other ‘movements’ that were happening a the time – civil rights in the US, anti-imperialist protests including opposition to the Vietnam war, womens’ rights, etc.
I was starting out at University in that period and these debates were all interlinked.
The Club of Rome, which was founded in 1968 and produced the ground-breaking report – The Limits to Growth (1972) – together with the ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ were two highly influential incursions into the debate about environmental sustainability and growth, with the latter tying in the food we produce and eat in an integrated way.
The ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ told us way back then that world hunger was not due to a shortage of food globally, but rather the type of food being produced and how it was distributed.
She argued that moving to a plant-based diet and abandoning cattle etc would solve the global food problem.
Natural foods movements were also spawned by these interventions and tied in the problems that arise from ‘big food’ Capitalism both in terms of compromising human health but also how it ravaged the natural environment.
Of course, like all these new ideas that challenged the status quo dominated by profit-seeking corporations who have been shown to regularly suppress research on the damage their products create in order to make more profits, there has been major push back from the food industry.
Further, our perceptions of what is sustainable with respect to food have not fundamentally changed.
On June 15, 2021, the Australian Climate Council of Australia article – Agriculture’s contribution to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions – indicated that:
While the burning of coal, oil and gas is the dominant source of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and so the dominant cause of the worsening impacts of climate change …
In Australia, ‘agriculture’ contributes around 13% of our greenhouse gas emissions each year. By weight, about half of the agricultural sector’s emissions – or 42% – are methane. Most of this is the methane produced by cows and other livestock due to the fermentation of plant matter in their stomachs …
Another separate source of emissions related to agriculture is land clearing for pastures and grazing land.
Last year (January 10, 2022), a new study was published in the journal Nature – Dietary change in high-income nations alone can lead to substantial double climate dividend – which provides ‘food for thought’ (sorry). The article is only accessible via a library subscription.
We learn that:
1. “Agriculture is key to determining the rate and depth of climatic change. Current food system emissions alone may preclude the limiting of climate warming to 1.5 °C or even 2 °C above pre-industrial levels”.
2. There are many scientific studies that now confirm that “Dietary change, for one, has been found to be a practical and effective strategy” for “limiting climate change”.
3. “The global food system is responsible for … 26% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agricultural production, particularly animal-derived products and land-use change, accounts for the largest proportion of these emissions”.
4. There is also a matter of global distribution of these impacts – “Animal-derived products account for 70% of food-system emissions in high-income countries but only 22% in low–middle-income countries.”
5. The authors conjecture that “dietary change in high-income countries may hold the potential to substantially reduce agricultural emissions around the world—a potential climate ‘dividend’.”
We learn that:
Given the large land requirement and high emissions intensity of animal agriculture, a shift away from animal-product consumption comprises the largest opportunity for both increased carbon sequestration via land sparing and emissions reductions from the food system itself.
The data is compelling.
They find that shifting to a vegetarian diet would reduce carbon emissions and “more than half of the increase in global carbon sequestration would occur in four nations alone: the United States (26.3%, 25.85 GtCO2e), Australia (13.5%, 13.28 GtCO2e), Germany (7.7%, 7.55 GtCO2e) and France (7.6%, 7.45 GtCO2e), collectively”.
GtCO2e is gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent.
Closer to home:
Australian dietary changes would see the largest per capita carbon benefit overall at 574.90 Mg CO2e of sequestration (6.7 times the average of all high-income countries
These benefits would come from a combination of moving away from animal products and restoring the native pastures and forests.
Figure 2 in the article summarises the data and I reproduce it here.
It shows the ‘potential carbon sequestration’ gains and the ‘potential GHG reductions’ by food type.
Massive environmental benefits would flow from a shift away from meat products to plant-based protein.
The impacts vary by nation as a result of the ‘scale of beef production system’ and scale of dairy consumption.
Where to start?
The research shows that a shift away from meat consumption would:
1. “benefit both the global environment and human health in high-income countries.”
2. “Land spared due to dietary change would expand opportunities for the implementation of natural climate solutions, such as regrowth of natural forest, which is arguably the single most effective natural climate solution throughout much of the world.”
But how would we get there?
The authors suggest a number of policy interventions that would help push the required transition.
They are particularly aware that the transition could impact adversely on low-income communities, which consume higher proportions of “unhealthy dood high in saturated fat, sugar or starch” because nutritious foods are more expensive to produce and purchase.
This problem is not confined to this issue.
The behavioural transitions that will be required are typically biased against low-income communities, which is why they are often resisted.
This has been a traditional problem for Green political groups who are big on stopping logging in rainforests and whatever but small on providing the dependent communities with an alternative way to maintain their material security (that is jobs).
Government will have to provide income support to ensure the low-income communities can fully participate in the shift away from meat products and the cheap fatty, sugary products.
The authors also point out that governments already provide massive subsidies to the big food corporations, which undermine environmental sustainability.
These subsidies could instead be redirected along the lines of environmentally sustainable agricultural practices and healthy diets.
A related topic, which I am working on in relation to my research in Japan is the question of food waste, which also contributes to environmental damage.
In addition to supporting low-income communities in making the necessary change, the authors, rightfully, note that government support for local producers, especially those in poorer nations that target export markets, would be required.
The shift would create “massive social upheaval” and that is the challenge for the degrowth agenda – how to ensure the ‘costs’ are borne equitably without compromising on the need for “rapid and deep change”.
These investments in people and communities will be essential.
An Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understading cuts through all the nonsense that such transitions are financially prohibitive.
Any currency-issuing government can ‘fund’ these changes.
The real challenge is convincing hard-core meat eaters that their days pursuing that diet must be numbered.
The behavioural shifts that are involved are quite complex even if there was no resistance.
But if we are to move towards a ‘degrowth’ world then those shifts, in my view, are essential.
There are a lot of things that are out of the control of individuals.
But what goes through our lips is totally within our discretion.
The only way forward in my view is to abandon meat products.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2023 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.