The United Nations' latest report on the climate crisis is clear: While the stakes are dire, there is still time to prevent dangerous or irreversible consequences on the environment. But how? The world must deviate from its dependence on meat and dairy, and instead introduce plant-based food systems. To meet these standards, the burden must fall on wealthier nations. The University of Bonn in Germany just released a new study that asserts that the United States and the European Union must reduce meat consumption by 75 percent.

The University of Bonn report – entitled “Meat and Consumption and Sustainability” – answers one of the biggest lingering questions when discussing agricultural reforms: How can poorer nations afford such all-encompassing reforms? The researchers analyzed the environmental costs of consuming meat and dairy products closely to determine that wealthier nations caused the majority of dangerous emissions, and to stop environmental disasters, those counties must reduce their meat production and consumption.

The study – published in the latest volume of the Annual Review of Resource Economics – notes that half of the grain produced is grown to feed animals. The researchers emphasize how costly and inefficient this process is regarding land, water, and energy consumption. Beyond waste, the study highlights how animal agriculture is a major contributor to one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, methane.

To understand the broader implications of meat consumption in wealthy nations, the study analyzed the average European and North American diet. The researcher detailed that the average American citizen consumes 270 pounds (124 kilos) of meat annually. Citizens of the European Union consume 176 pounds (80 kilos) of meat annually. The report emphasizes that this is not sustainable for a world population expected to reach 10 billion by 2040.

“If all humans consumed as much meat as Europeans or North Americans, we would certainly miss the international climate targets and many ecosystems would collapse,” Professor at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn and study author Matin Qaim said in a statement. “We, therefore, need to significantly reduce our meat consumption, ideally to 20 kilograms or less annually. The war in Ukraine and the resulting shortages in international markets for cereal grains also underline that less grain should be fed to animals in order to support food security.”

By reducing meat consumption in the world’s wealthier nations, consumers and governments could significantly lower the strain on the environment. Introducing plant-based food systems could help the world reach climate goals. Organizations including Greenpeace have called out Western counties and the animal agriculture industry, bringing attention to the extensive harms of meat production. Last year, the organization demanded that the EU cut meat production by 71 percent by 2030.

Europe Ramps Up Sustainability Efforts

While discussing climate change, the majority of sustainability calls generalize that the world needs to take action, but most countries do not have the resources for a sweeping reformation. However, major greenhouse gas contributors including Europe and North American countries have the resources to curb these dangerous industries.

Several countries have introduced one experimental solution to placing limitations on the meat industry with a tax on meat. The EU considered a tax proposal in 2020 developed by the Amsterdam-based True Animal Protein Price Coalition. The sustainability tax is designed to mirror the cost on the environment with every meat purchase, encompassing greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and wildlife loss. The organization believes that this tax could lower beef consumption by 67 percent; pork by 57 percent; and chicken by 30 percent.

“That’s certainly unpopular, especially since a 10- or 20-percent surcharge probably wouldn’t be enough if it’s supposed to have a steering effect,” Qaim said. “Meat, however, has a high environmental cost that is not reflected in current prices. It would be entirely reasonable and fair to have consumers share more of these costs.”

The researcher recognized that it would be difficult to promote plant-based diets in poorer countries without a big plant-based protein industry. Noting that plant-based initiatives and the rise of cell-based meat could eventually close this nutritional gap. But until then, Qaim claimed, "We need to become more sensitive to the global impact of our decisions.”

Since the latest UN climate report, countries such as Denmark have increased efforts to promote sustainable food systems. The country just launched a climate food label program that will help shoppers find sustainable food products in the grocery stores. The campaign comes weeks after Denmark invested $100 million in a plant-based fund dedicated to promoting sustainable food production and education.

The Rise of the Climatarian

Despite the pressure placed on governments, the biggest obstacle will be tackling major animal agriculture companies. Currently, 20 livestock companies produce more emissions than three major European countries: Britain, Germany, and France. A plant-based diet is becoming more essential and more popular than ever. Now, 55 percent of consumers consider sustainability when shopping.

Climatarians – consumers that choose what to eat according to what is least harmful to the environment – now represent a majority of shoppers. With the climate crisis at our doorsteps, eating plant-based is becoming one of the best methods to contribute to environmental action. By reducing dependency on meat and dairy, the world has a fighting chance against environmental disasters.

To start slashing meat from your diet and begin your plant-based journey, visit our Beginner's Guide to a Plant-Based Diet for recipes, tips, and expert advice.

For more about the planet, visit The Beet's Environmental News category. 

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