Food production and the environment: how much responsibility do we bear?

On August 8, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report called “Climate Change and Land”. The report, written by 100 authors from developed and developing countries, made news headlines. It addressed the extent of the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions of forest destruction, agricultural food production, and human diets.

To date, most climate-related attention has focussed on the burning of fossil fuels. The latest IPCC report directs our attention to the land and to what we eat. A key figure from the report is that nearly a quarter of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that cause global heating are created through forestry and farming practices. The IPCC’s alarming message is that without tackling these activities, limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels may be impossible.

One of the things the IPCC report recommended was addressing deforestation, which removes carbon sinks. Another issue the report identified is the degradation of soils through modern farming practices, which leads to the release of carbon into the atmosphere.

The report also advised an urgent reduction in the consumption of meat and animal products, especially in richer countries. It implied that individuals, and governments and their policies, have a role to play in ameliorating the climate crisis by adopting and encouraging moves towards plant-based diets. As the journal Nature summarised it:

“The report states with high confidence that balanced diets featuring plant-based, and sustainably-produced animal-sourced, food “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health”.”

Many people now know that, compared to plant-based diets, animal-based diets produce protein and other nutrients inefficiently, and cause more greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere (as well as a lot of water to be used). Notwithstanding the IPCC’s finding about the threat to the climate from animal agriculture, the commentator George Monbiot argued that the IPCC report seriously underestimates the climate harm generated by animal production.

Amongst other papers, Monbiot pointed to a 2018 paper in Nature that sought to calculate the effective contribution to climate change of the failure to turn land used for animal production over to forests and native ecosystems. If pasture and land used for livestock is transformed into such vegetation, if it is rewilded, then more greenhouse gases are removed from the atmosphere. The Nature paper referred to the failure to rewild and revegetate land used for animals as Carbon Opportunity Cost. The authors argue that:

“reforesting pastures, biofuel production and diet changes…can have much greater implications for the climate than previously understood because standard methods for evaluating the effects of land use on greenhouse gas emissions systematically underestimate the opportunity of land to store carbon if it is not used for agriculture.” (Searchinger, T. D., Wirsenius, S., Beringer, T., & Dumas, P. (2018). Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change. Nature, 564(7735), 249.)

The paper’s authors say that although “animal products offer health benefits for the food-insecure, we estimate much larger climate benefits than others if the wealthy consume less beef and dairy.”

Interestingly, it is the more extensive types of farming systems, such as occurs with beef cattle and dairy, rather than more intensive animal production systems, that carry the greatest carbon-related opportunity costs. That is, converting the land cattle and sheep are run on into to forest, or to biofuel production, does more good in terms of tackling climate change than doing the same for chicken or pig farming. Even so, reducing chicken and pig production would also have a beneficial impact on the climate.

There are obviously complexities and differences between farming systems and locations; however, the key point that has emerged from this recent scientific work is that converting much of the land that is presently used to farm animals into native forest and ecosystems, or other types of vegetation such as biofuel plants, has huge potential to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change. Given these recent scientific studies and reports, it looks likely that greater attention will now be paid to the climate-related consequences of raising of animals for food.

What does this mean for veterinarians in countries like Australia? The above proponents of a move away from animal production towards plant-based diets and biofuels might say that veterinarians have the same duties as other citizens – namely, to eat less meat and encourage others to do the same. In addition, such proponents might also say that veterinarians are in a position to do more.

Clearly, there are great moral complexities for veterinarians who are directly involved in animal food production and whose livelihoods depend on those industries. Nonetheless, because of their role in animal production, which, as recent scientific evidence shows, contributes significantly to the climate crisis, perhaps veterinarians at least have a collective and personal responsibility to re-examine the ethics of those systems.

Do you have a question you’d like to put to Simon, or a comment on this column? Please email us with your thoughts.

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