How changing what you eat can help limit climate change

How changing what you eat can help limit climate change

Charlotte Flechet
Charlotte Flechet
Good Food For Cities programme director

Meat consumption by Vietnam’s 90 million strong population has been steadily increasing over the past ten years. From 20 kg of meat consumed per capita per year in 1999, the figure rose to nearly 50 kg per capita per year in 2009 [1]. This is more than the average for South East Asia and one of the fastest increases in the world.

Pork, followed by poultry, is still the average Vietnamese households’ favourite type of meat. However, beef is making an incredible breakthrough in recent years. Overall, demand for beef has rapidly increased in Vietnam, much faster than increases in the domestic production [2]. At the moment, beef accounts for only 7% of Vietnam’s meat consumption but this figure is expected to reach 12% by 2020 according to the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Vu Van Tam [3].

This recent rise is mainly due to the country’s steady economic growth that has boosted the incomes of millions of Vietnamese families since the end of the 1980s. Economists expect meat consumption to keep growing in the coming decades. According to them, it will only start decreasing once the Vietnamese reach very high income levels [4]

We can only rejoice in the idea that millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. On the other hand, this growth comes at a cost: one side-effect of growing meat consumption is its negative impact on the environment and on global food security.

If cattle were able to form their own nation, they would rank third behind China and the United States

Reducing animal product consumption to protect the environment.

The World Resources Institute (WRI), a leading sustainable development research organisation, has recently published a series of briefs on Creating a Sustainable Food Future. The latest one focuses on Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future. It explores how changes in diet can improve food security and environmental sustainability. Its main finding is that even tiny shifts in consumers’ food choices can have a massive impact on reducing the emission of greenhouse gases and on agriculture’s resource use.

According to the publication: “Beef production requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of edible protein than common plant-based protein sources such as beans, peas and lentils.” Per calorie, beef requires 160 times more land than potatoes, wheat, and rice [5] and it is currently responsible for approximately 15% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions [6]. In comparison, pork and chicken, although also resource-intensive, require 3 times more land and emit 3 times more greenhouse gases than beans. Strikingly, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), about 45% of the total greenhouse gas emissions of the livestock sector comes from the associated feed production and processing required to feed the animals over their lifetime. The picture below, produced by Gaaliance, highlights how much feed is needed to gain one pound of body mass. As you can see, the figure is significantly higher for cattle than for other animals.

At the global level, in 2010, ruminants – such as cattle, goats and sheep – were responsible for almost half of all agricultural production-related greenhouse gas emissions. WRI’s publication highlighted that “If cattle were able to form their own nation, they would rank third behind China and the United States” in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

This is in part due to the fact that livestock is a major source of atmospheric methane, a greenhouse gas with an impact on the climate almost 25 times greater than CO2, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Global demand for animal-based food (including dairy and meat) is likely to rise by 80% between 2006 and 2050, and up to 95% for beef. This will undoubtedly spawn more land conversion, harming natural ecosystems, and generate more greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, in all regions of the world, including in South East Asia, people already consume more protein than what is required for a balanced diet.

Ensuring food safety in the future

Projections by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization anticipate a food gap of 70% between the crop calories available in 2006 and the calorie demand in 2050. This demand will be fuelled by two growing trends: a global population that is estimated to reach 10 billion people by 2050 and the expansion of the global middle class. This changes food consumption preferences to more resource-intensive foods such as dairy and meat [7]

As the World Resources Institute suggests, continuously increasing agricultural production is neither desirable, nor sustainable: this would exert even more pressure to convert natural ecosystems into farm or pasture land. Therefore, the organisation recommends tackling the issue of overconsumption of calories. This would also have a positive impact on health by reducing the risks of obesity that is increasingly becoming a global phenomenon. Their findings indicate that it would be possible to feed 10 billion people by 2050 using existing agricultural land, simply by reducing the consumption of animal-based foods among the world’s wealthier population.

So, what can you do?

Do you have to become a vegetarian to have an impact? No, you don’t have to completely stop eating animal-based products. Start by introducing one or two meat-free days in your schedule. When you do eat meat, try to opt for more sustainable types of meat such as pork, chicken or fish instead of beef. Try to fit more plant-based proteins such as tofu, lentils or beans into your diet and add a little less milk to your ‘cà phê’. These simple changes alone can already reduce your environmental footprint by a lot. For example, for people with an American-style diet it is possible to cut the environmental impact of their diet nearly in half, simply by eating 50% less meat, dairy, fish and eggs [8].

WRI’s research has shown that if the 2 billion people who today consume a lot of meat and dairy decide to reduce their intake, this could free up to 640 million hectares of land. This is an area the size of India. We can all play a role in this. Every meal counts! If we all commit to adapting our diet, this could be a true game changer for the planet and its people.

Picture by CIAT

[1] Phuong, Cuong and Mergenthaler (2014). Effects of Socio-economic and Demographic Variables on Meat Consumption in Vietnam. Asian Journal of Agriculture and Rural Development, 4(1), pp. 7-22. []

[2] Idem

[3] The Voice of Vietnam.* Vietnam eyes sustainable growth of cattle industry*. 10 May 2016 []

[4] Phuong, Cuong and Mergenthaler (2014)

[5] Damian Carrington. Giving up beef will reduce carbon footprint more than cars, says expert. 21 July 2014. The Guardian []

[6] Chalmers University of Technology. Eggs and chicken instead of beef reap major climate gains. 1 April 2015 [].

[7] World Resources Institute (2016). Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future []

[8] Richard Waite. How I Tweaked My Diet to Cut its Environmental Footprint in Half. 20 April 2016. World Resources Institute []