How much carbon is embedded in your steak?
Photo © Brent Hofacker \ Fotolia.com

Last year, we posted 9 Simple Ways to Save the Planet in our Green Living blog. The post suggested eating less meat, stating that “an estimated 18 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to livestock production.” We've since learned that the impacts of meat are much worse than we thought.

In her 2009 TED Talk, architect and author Carolyn Steel explains that cities and agriculture are deeply intertwined; in fact, city dwellers were once well aware of where their food came from because their ancient cities were literally carved by food routes. As time and technology progressed and modern transportation systems emerged, cities became detached from food processes, particularly from how livestock was raised, slaughtered and processed.

Modern cities may not be built around food routes as they once were, but our lives and our natural environment are still greatly impacted by the types of food systems we participate in and support. The relationship between our food choices and our environment becomes prevalent when we acknowledge how modern agriculture, especially livestock, is contributing to climate change.

Climate scientists now agree that human activities – including the way we grow and consume food – are contributing to the warming trends that the earth has been experiencing since the Industrial Revolution. All kinds of actions to help mitigate climate change are being discussed, and the most effective action individuals can take may be reconsidering what we put on our plates. In fact, climate experts are now suggesting that the best way to be green is to eat green.

According to a report by UNESCO, the demand for meat is continuing to increase and this is resulting in serious implications for our environment. According to the calculations of former and current environmental specialists from the World Bank Group, livestock is currently responsible for at least an astounding 51 per cent of annual worldwide GHG emissions – much higher than the 18 per cent previously reported!

This incredible statistic is based on the fact that current industrial livestock management practices are heavily reliant on large scale deforestation and forest-burning to create pastureland, which has seriously undermined the Earth’s ability to maintain a balanced carbon cycle through photosynthesis. In other words, there are fewer and fewer trees left to capture carbon, leaving it to enter the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2) and contribute to the greenhouse effect. And that’s not even considering the methane produced by the livestock, which is over 20 times more potent than CO2!

Industrialized livestock production includes externalities as well, including water consumption and pollution. Biodiversity is also being threatened due to habitat loss and the proliferation of monoculture. Commercial livestock practices also tend to favour larger companies, undermining smallholder farmers and input from local communities.  

On the bright side, this 51 per cent also means that there is a huge opportunity to mitigate climate change through changing the way we eat. By shifting away from livestock and adopting more plant-based diets, we can significantly reduce the amount of GHGs entering our atmosphere. This shift is so important that in 2009 the Nutrition Department at the Swedish National Food Administration in Sweden tested out a labelling system that provided information about a food item’s associated carbon emissions to help citizens make more informed and conscious food choices.

Even if adopting a permanent vegetarian or vegan diet is not for you, you can still do you part to reduce your GHG emissions significantly, and easily, by having one meat-free day a week. Your vegetarian meal is giving the earth a chance to regenerate its carbon-sequestering forests so that it can continue to supply us with the foods we love.

Sharing her adventures and reflections in the food movement, Jo Anne explores complex food issues from a youth perspective, including the need for an innovative, integrated, empowerment-focused approach to food security and the connections between social justice, environmental issues and food production.

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