Photo: Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

Big news recently is that the United Nations is advocating a vegan diet for the world in order to combat climate change, dwindling fresh water supplies, hunger and land change leading to biodiversity loss.

The comprehensive report, “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production,” was released by the U.N. Environmental Program’s (UNEP) International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, &to coincide with World Environmental Day on June 5th. While not specifically citing veganism, the report strongly recommends moving away from a meat and dairy-centered diet.

The U.N. report also suggests curbing fossil fuel use, which can again be achieved by going vegan.   Experts predict that there will be at least 9 billion people in the world by 2050, and global meat consumption is projected to double by that time.

The report says: "Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products."

Professor Edgar Hertwich, the lead author of the report, said: "Animal products cause more damage than [producing] construction minerals such as sand or cement, plastics or metals. Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels."

The recommendation follows advice last year from Lord Nicholas Stern, former adviser to the British government on the economics of climate change, that a vegetarian diet is better for the planet.  "Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world's resources. A vegetarian diet is better," Stern said.&

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has also urged people to observe one meat-free day a week to curb carbon emissions.

“Agriculture, particularly meat and dairy products, accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use and 19% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions,” says the report. UN researchers also found that increased consumption of meat and dairy occurs as a result of economic growth, and the impact of this increase is at least as disastrous on the environment as increased fossil fuel use.

What I find very interesting is that the U.N.’s recommendations to forego meat are based on figures of the livestock industry contributing between 11% and 18% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This will seem radical for some people. I wonder if the report’s authors are becoming vegans?

But what’s even more radical is the April 2010 report by the WorldWatch Institute [1], “Livestock and Climate Change,”  that improves on the U.N.’s much quoted 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow." In their update, they show how the livestock sector actually accounts for a whopping 51% of worldwide GHGs – a share more than four-times larger than U.N.’s. They convincingly show how many factors have been overlooked – such as the respiration of livestock – and others have been wrongly assessed, underestimated or are out of date.

People are blogging excitedly about this, and two good summaries of the report are listed below:

For a perspective shift, they explain: “…livestock (like automobiles) are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe.”

Their recommendation is to promote “meat analogs”, which primarily come from soy. In fact the last two pages of the report outline a marketing strategy to convince the world to make the switch from flesh.

“…replacing livestock products with better alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change. In fact, this approach would have far more rapid effects on GHG emissions…than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.” They assert that “Even if money and politics were up to the task, solutions involving renewable energy are expected to take more than a decade to implement fully, by which time the tipping point may long since have been passed for irreversible climate disruption.”

They aim for a 25% reduction in animal products by 2017, and call for change to be directed at industry, rather than governments, which can be slow to change. In fact, this presents an immense opportunity for business. A fast-food place with all meat analogs? Sounds fantastic. Instead of Burger King, you’d have Veggie Victory.

“By replacing livestock products with analogs, consumers can take a single powerful action collectively to mitigate most GHGs worldwide. Labeling analogs with certified claims of the amount of GHGs averted can give them a significant edge.”

The report points out that analogs are less expensive, less wasteful, easier to cook, and healthier than slaughtered animal products. They assert how meat analogs will also help ease the global food crisis, alleviate the global water crisis, improve health and labor conditions. [2]

Now where does dairy fit into all this? Interestingly, the U.N. has completed an analysis of the dairy industry’s impact on climate change. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from the Dairy Sector”, published on April 20, 2010, found that milk production contributes 2.7% of global GHG emissions. When they factored in the unfortunate slaughter of calves that accompanies virtually all dairy production, the amount rises to 4%.

The report is a follow-up to the organization's 2006 report, “Livestock's Long Shadow”. It assesses the global dairy industry's contribution specifically and covers the production of dairy products from the farm to the retailer. All things considered, the 4% contribution to GHG arising from dairy production is much smaller than the impact of the meat industry taken as a whole.

There’s a lot of information out there for those who want it, for who want to be part of the solution, for those who care.

So whether you go vegan, vegetarian, or decide to start by giving up meat just one day a week, you’re part of the solution. Be encouraged, and check in here for more updates. Share with me what you find. We can make a difference!

  1. The Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organization recognized by opinion leaders around the world for its accessible, fact-based analysis of critical global issues. The Institute's three main program areas include Climate & Energy, Food & Agriculture, and the Green Economy.
  2. Meat and dairy analog projects will not only slow climate change but also help ease the global food crisis, as it takes a much smaller quantity of crops to produce any given number of calories in the form of an analog than a livestock product. Analogs would also alleviate the global water crisis, as the huge amounts of water necessary for livestock production would be freed up. Health and nutritional outcomes among consumers would be better than from livestock products. Analog projects would be more labor intensive than livestock projects, so would create both more jobs and more skilled jobs. They would also avert the harmful labor practices found in the livestock sector (but not in analog production), including slave labor in some areas such as the Amazon forest region. Workers producing livestock products can easily be retrained to produce analogs.