Skip to main content

Gluttony and Global Warming: We’re Eating Ourselves to a Warmer Planet

Forget your car. Our obsession with beef and dairy has a far more devastating effect on the climate.
(Photo: PhotoHouse/Shutterstock)

(Photo: PhotoHouse/Shutterstock)

To deny the impact of dairy and livestock production on climate change is to deny climate change. The facts, as summarized in a recent study from The Royal Institute’s Chatham House, are as clear (and depressing) as they’ve ever been. For consumers concerned with anthropocentric global warming, they force us to face a difficult reality, one that neither food writers nor leading environmentalists, perhaps fearing backlash, will fully reveal: We must radically alter our diets—by eliminating conventional animal products, ideally—to mitigate the Earth’s destruction. If we fail to do so, our legacy will be as a species that destroyed itself with its gluttonous palate.

An estimated 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions currently derive from animal products—that’s more than the greenhouse gas emissions linked to all forms of transportation. Livestock is the world’s single largest source of global methane and nitrous oxide emissions—emissions that are far more potent and enduring than carbon dioxide. Beef and dairy products deserve the lion’s share of the blame, accounting for 65 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions deriving from livestock—the emissions per unit of protein of beef are 150 times higher than that for soy. In addition, the production of meat and dairy is a leading cause of deforestation, with dense nodes of biodiversity being bulldozed for grazing and feed production. And about 75 percent of the world’s arable land is used to raise animals we eat. None of this even wades into the issue of water.

We seem to value a right to eat whatever we want to eat. That attitude has contributed to habits of consumption that are stunningly destructive to our health, the welfare of animals, and the planet.

As if these figures aren’t alarming enough on their own, it’s the projections that should really stop us in our tracks. Global demand for meat and dairy is poised to grow exponentially. China, of course, leads the way. But estimates for places such as Indonesia, Russia, Argentina, and India also project unexpectedly sharp rates of increase (in some cases by a factor of six) between 2011 and 2021. The authors of the Chatham House study estimate that, by 2050, the global consumption of meat and dairy will rise by 76 percent and 65 percent, respectively (compared to a 2005-07 baseline). In other words, if Western countries continue to eat the way we now eat—lots of meat and dairy—and developing countries order what we’re having, methane and nitrous oxide emissions would more than double by 2055. And if this happens, you can pretty much wipe every other climate change initiative off the table.

International leaders are doing virtually nothing to address this situation. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has “overlooked livestock” while the freshly-minted Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (launched in September 2014 at the U.N. Climate Summit) mentions reducing agricultural emissions but says nothing specific about livestock or dairy per se.

Livestock and dairy are marginal concerns at best for nations articulating climate change reduction strategies. Among the 40 developed countries participating in UNFCCC, only two (France and Bulgaria) have a target set for livestock-related emissions. Developing countries are even worse, with only Brazil (out of 55 nations) stating mitigation standards for livestock specifically. Mocking even the lip service that’s paid to the problem, governments are actually encouraging meat and dairy consumption through generous livestock subsidies. OECD nations doled out $53 billion in such support in 2013.

Environmental organizations and food writers have also done little to address the connection between climate and the consumption of animal products. Nobody, of course, likes to be told how to eat. But we don’t mind having our outrage stoked from time to time. Thus donor organizations are far more comfortable confronting whalers on the high seas or getting arrested protesting pipeline projects than they are serving up the bad dietary news to their carnivorously inclined memberships.

Food writers likewise swap reality for fantasy by advising concerned consumers to eat local, or organic, or pasture-raised non-industrial alternatives. The irony, as this report reiterates, is that, “Intensive rearing of cattle on feedlots is less emissions-intensive than pasture-based grazing systems because grass-fed cows tend to produce more methane and take longer to reach slaughter weight.” Others simply toss around red herrings through article after article after article about such peripheral matters as the water required to grow almonds. Almonds are not going to ruin the planet.

Agricultural economists like to highlight the ameliorative impacts of technology, but supply-side solutions hold little promise for tempering the looming threat posed by meat and dairy consumption. There’s no doubt that technologically driven efficiencies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production. However, the authors of the Chatham House report warn of a “rebound effect”—that is, an effect whereby increasing efficiency of production drives down costs and increases demand, thereby offsetting whatever greenhouse gas reduction technology is created in the first place. They elaborate:

Estimates indicate that shifting all livestock farming to the least emissions-intensive production practices available within a particular region or agro-ecological zone could offer emissions reductions of 32 per cent at current output levels. This would be a remarkable achievement, but not enough to offset rising demand for meat and dairy products: livestock emissions would continue on an upward trajectory.

Despite being savvy consumers of information, we have a notable ability to hear what we want to hear, exclude what we want to exclude, and eat what we want to eat. Just as we perceive ourselves to have a “right to know our food” we also seem to value a right to eat whatever we want to eat. That attitude has contributed to habits of consumption that are stunningly destructive to our health, the welfare of animals, and the planet. The danger of our culinary libertarianism—one that’s for more entrenched in the developed world and in the United States the most—has fostered a gluttony that harms ourselves and the planet at once.

Every year individual Americans eat about 600 pounds of milk, yogurt, and ice cream; 30 pounds of cheese; and around 240 pounds of meat.

It’s unlikely that the United States will be leading the way toward dietary reform. The fact is, we may be too far gone. Every year individual Americans eat about 600 pounds of milk, yogurt, and ice cream; 30 pounds of cheese; and around 240 pounds of meat. Only beef consumption shows signs of decreasing. All other meat and dairy items are on a sharp upward trajectory—for example, we only ate seven pounds of cheese a year in 1970. Given that the primary drivers of food choice are taste and price—not ecological impact—these trends seem unlikely to change anytime soon.

But the Chatham House report ends on a note of optimism. The study uncovered a large “awareness gap” on the impact of meat and dairy on climate change. Interestingly, it found that Americans were significantly less likely than Brazilians or the Chinese to accept a connection between human behavior and climate change. It also found that those who recognized the connection were more willing to alter their diets to mitigate its effects.

The surveys that reached these conclusions were the first of their kind. They stress that consumer-driven amelioration is possible. But they also stress that the more addicted we become to meat and dairy, the less likely we are to see them as a problem. And the more likely we are to eat in a way that either denies or ignores climate change.