Among the flurry of climate headlines coming out of COP26, a small but welcome piece of news was the UK’s decision as host of the conference to serve at least 40% plant-based dishes to the 20 000 delegates attending the climate talks in Glasgow.
If policymakers are serious about addressing the climate crisis, this approach needs to mark a starting shot for a much broader and sustained transition to put global dietary trends on a more plant-based trajectory.
Plant-based action is climate action
The livestock industry is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A global switch to veganism could save almost 8 billion metric tons of CO2e a year by 2050 relative to business as usual (all food production currently contributes to around 13.7 billion tons of CO2e a year) and even a shift to vegetarian or “flexitarian” diets with limited animal protein consumption would lead to substantial emission reductions. A more plant-based diet can also be a valuable adaptation strategy by reducing the land area needed for food production.
Many other environmental benefits would accrue. The world’s large appetite for animal products, increasingly supplied by intensive livestock production, is also linked to biodiversity loss, high levels of water use and pollution and air pollution.
The role of policy for a healthy planet
Reducing animal protein consumption can also bring major public health wins. The EAT-Lancet Commission recently found that only two regions, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, currently consume red meat at levels at or below those considered healthy and sustainable. The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the potential infectious disease risks of intensive livestock farming. Meanwhile, policymakers are sounding the alarm about the risk of a “silent pandemic” of antimicrobial resistance, to which antibiotic use in the intensive livestock sector is a major contributor.
Finally, with 80 billion land animals – the vast majority chickens – slaughtered annually for meat, and often raised in inhumane conditions, a shift to a more plant-based diet could avoid enormous amounts of suffering.
Given all this, it is heartening to see vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets on the rise, particularly in richer countries. However, many of these countries are starting from very high baselines of animal product consumption and the global picture paints a different story, with consumption of animal products projected to increase 61–144% by 2050.
Governments can and should play a key role in shifting this trend. However, most efforts so far to reduce animal protein consumption have focused on consumer responsibility, missing the key role of policy. Focus group discussions in diverse contexts suggest that the public expects governments to spearhead this agenda.
“Most efforts to reduce animal protein consumption have focused on consumer responsibility, missing the key role of policy.”
— Cleo Verkuijl and Jonathan Green
Hungry for equitable food systems
A plant-based transition must reduce, not exacerbate, existing inequalities. There are enormous differences in consumption levels, with the average European eating about 10 times more meat per year than the average Ethiopian or Rwandan. In food-insecure contexts, animal products can be a vital source of protein and micronutrients. Livestock rearing can also supplement incomes and provide fertilizer for crops. The richest countries and consumers with the highest levels of animal protein consumption should be the primary focus of efforts to transition towards more plant-based diets.
A starting point is to end government support for intensive animal agriculture. A recent UN report revealed that poultry, pork, mutton, beef and eggs are among top 10 food products that benefit the most from government support. The EU positions itself as a leader on both climate and animal welfare, but has provided hundreds of millions of euros for meat and dairy advertising and buckled to industry pressure to ban the use of dairy-related terms such as “milk” and “cheese” for plant-based alternatives.
Shifts are starting to occur. Investments in plant-based foods and related research are increasing in places such as Canada, Denmark, the EU and Singapore. Regions and cities across the world have introduced “meatless days” or otherwise changed public procurement policies to reduce consumption. Drawing lessons from the energy sector, we need to see much more proactive government planning and support to ensure a “just transition” for consumers, workers, communities and other stakeholders affected by dietary shifts.
Efforts to promote a protein transition will also need to take a holistic view of our diets, and be mindful of potential unintended consequences. For instance, replacing beef with chicken for climate or health reasons – as some consumers have done – may exacerbate animal welfare issues. The recent rise in investment in plant-based meat replacements and “lab-grown” meat also raises important questions about how to ensure these products are accessible, affordable and healthy, and that they support, rather than shift power away from, local producers and markets.
By taking a proactive stance, policy can accelerate and maximize the benefits of a plant-based protein shift. As they return home from Glasgow, governments must take this message to heart.