Meat consumption’s long shadow over health and climate

A new report by the European Commission’s Senior Advisor on Sustainability, Karl Falkenberg, calls for a Fitness Check of the Common Agricultural Policy – a long overdue admission that all is not well in food and farming. And yet the report comes at the same time as a new climate policy proposal falls far short of addressing the contribution of intensive livestock farming to climate change.
Preventing dangerous climate change, reversing the rise in diet-related chronic diseases and neutralising the threat of antibiotic resistance are, due to their sheer scale of impact, among the most pressing issues facing the world today. An academic consensus is emerging around the understanding that changes to food consumption patterns may well be key to solving the three of them. Main message: we can’t afford to continue eating as if there is no tomorrow.
The Effort Sharing proposal on climate change, published by the European Commission on 20 July, is a great opportunity to start moving towards healthy, sustainable diets. In our press release, EPHA reiterated that current dietary patterns high in animal products are incompatible with the aim of avoiding dangerous climate change. If left unchecked, the global rise in meat and dairy consumption, expected to grow by 76% and 65% respectively by 2050, will leave agriculture to account for nearly the entire annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions limit foreseen for the mid-century.
A significant body of academic literature now exists showing that eating patterns lower in animal products will cut food-related GHG emissions, can reduce diet-related chronic diseases and can create preconditions to reduce antibiotics use in animal farming. Some key findings that will be further discussed in an upcoming EPHA paper are that
1- Food consumption patterns have an enormous impact on GHG emissions and ‘business as usual’ dietary scenarios are incompatible with avoiding dangerous climate change

2- Dietary change may be agriculture’s single best climate mitigation opportunity, but is most effective when flanked by well-conceived improvements in farming methods

3- Diets high in livestock products, particularly red meat and processed meat, are associated with elevated disease and mortality risks, while intensive animal farming is linked to high levels of antibiotics use.

4- Dietary change, if fostered with due care for health requirements and sensitive to wider socio-economic impacts, will probably result in multiple benefits for individuals and societies.

5- Demand-based public health instruments are key to drive the change towards sustainable diets, coupled with coherent agricultural policy.
Changes in consumption patterns are ultimately inevitable. In Europe, a cautious transition is already taking place and some countries, having introduced sustainable dietary guidelines, support this move at least in principle. But concrete action is needed to ensure that agriculture is not let off the hook in terms of reducing emissions under Effort Sharing rules.
The widespread belief that agriculture has a low mitigation potential, see for instance EU Council Conclusions from 2014, is both worrying and imprecise. Realistic changes in eating patterns in high income countries could reduce per capita agricultural emissions by 25-50%. Furthermore, dietary change away from meat overconsumption, rather than livestock feed production, will improve global food security by reducing climate change impacts and freeing prime agricultural land for sustainable food. It will also take pressure off the world’s valuable forests.
The main challenge now for national governments and the EU is to consider concrete measures to foster the transition towards sustainable diets.  By elaborating sustainable dietary guidelines and strategies to attain them and by calling for a Health Impact Assessment of agricultural policy in the framework of a Refit of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP),  Europe can and should act as a global example and standard-setter for achieving the transition towards more sensible eating patterns, to help secure a liveable future for this world.

By Nikolai Pushkarev, Policy Coordinator Food, Drink & Agriculture, EPHA

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