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UN omits potential of meat reduction in its roadmap for climate-compatible food system, raises health concerns, experts say

International team of researchers highlights missed opportunities for climate, health and other benefits from reducing consumption of animal-sourced foods.

Published on 18 March 2024
Press release contact

Lynsi Burton / lynsi.burton@sei.org

A cow chewing grass in a field

A dairy cow chewing grass in a field

Photo: Getty Images / Tony C French

The UN’s roadmap for ending hunger while aligning food systems with a 1.5°C climate trajectory omits the biggest avenue for curbing emissions: reducing the production and consumption of animal-sourced foods, a new commentary in Nature Food says.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently issued its first of a three-part roadmap that aims to eradicate chronic hunger by 2030 and transform agriculture and food systems into a net carbon sink by 2050. The Nature Food commentary identifies major gaps in the roadmap that the authors say must be addressed to meaningfully reduce emissions and promote a healthy food system.

‘One of the most obvious and urgent interventions’

Animal agriculture accounts for 12–20% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for nearly 60% of the food system’s emissions. The FAO roadmap calls for a 25% reduction of methane emissions from the livestock sector by 2030. Yet, the report does not explore or recommend limiting the consumption of animal products, even in countries where they are currently overconsumed.

Instead, many of the FAO’s recommendations consist of improving the efficiency of current animal farming techniques, and even intensifying production to look more like industrial animal operations in the US or Europe.

However, recent analysis shows that even ambitious technological improvements to animal agriculture are insufficient for reducing methane emissions enough to align with a 1.5°C pathway, due to the expected rising global demand for meat and milk. In contrast, other studies have found that a global shift to healthy, plant-forward diets could help bring global average temperature down by between one-quarter and one-third of a degree by 2100 compared to business-as-usual.

“By failing to recognize the need to reduce the production and consumption of animal-sourced foods, the FAO misses a central element of a climate-friendly food system,” said Cleo Verkuijl, the lead author of the Comment and a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute and Visiting Fellow at the Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School. “It’s like publishing a 1.5-degree roadmap for the energy sector that ignores the need to scale back fossil fuels.”

The authors also raise concerns about the transparency of the FAO’s publication process and the methodology used in the study.

According to Matthew Hayek, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University and a co-author on the Nature Food comment, “The FAO fails to present any methods or concrete data behind their claim that incremental tweaks in farmed animal management alone can meet our climate goals. Meanwhile, the report contradicts a massive body of science proving that we need serious dietary changes in order to limit global warming below dangerous levels.”

One Health concerns

The roadmap also raises health concerns, according to the experts. Before publishing its recent roadmap, FAO made a commitment to the “One Health” approach, which it describes as “an integrated, unifying approach” that “recognizes the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment (including ecosystems) are closely linked and interdependent.”

There is growing global recognition that protecting animals, on farms and in the wild, is crucial to safeguarding our health and preventing another pandemic.

However, the commentary notes, the FAO’s 1.5°C roadmap disregards its own commitment to One Health. It recommends increased intensification of farmed animal operations and shifting from beef to chicken, which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the report pays insufficient attention to how intensive animal production practices tends to increase stressful animal confinement, which can increase the risk of infectious diseases such as avian flu, expands the sector’s heavy use of antimicrobials, a contributor to the growing public health threat of antimicrobial resistance, and worsens animal welfare concerns.

Meanwhile, the report dismisses the potential of alternative proteins such as plant-based meat to contribute to a more sustainable and healthier food system. A recent UN Environment Programme report found that plant-based and lab-grown alternatives show significant promise for emissions reductions and reduced public health risks such as zoonotic disease, compared to conventional animal products.

The first part of the FAO’s roadmap was launched at the recent COP28 Climate Conference in Dubai. Given that it will be followed by two more installments at COP29 and COP30 — one with a regional-level
focus and one with a country-level focus — the commentary’s authors say it is crucial for the organization to address the shortcomings identified.

Read the Comment in Nature Food.

For media inquiries, please contact:

Lynsi Burton, communications officer, Stockholm Environment Institute, Seattle: [email protected]

Cleo Verkuijl
Cleo Verkuijl

Scientist

SEI US

Michael Lazarus
Michael Lazarus

Senior Scientist

SEI US

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