Global boiling: How to eat responsibly to combat climate change

People's food choices will either make or break the planet, climate group says

The livestock industry is one of the heaviest emitters of greenhouse gases. Marino Bobetic / Unsplash
Powered by automated translation

"The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived," UN chief Antonio Guterres said after scientists confirmed July was the hottest month on record.

The urgency to address an environmental disaster has never been clearer, and the UN Secretary General said "only dramatic, immediate climate action" is what's going to help us avoid the "the very worst of climate change".

Talks of man-made environmental disasters often point to the burning of fossil fuels as the major culprit. While many countries have since pledged to move away from coal and have started investing in renewable energy, one Dutch "think-and-do tank" is bringing another idea to the table – changing our diets.

Ditching meat, especially beef, is one way to counter climate change, Clim-Eat says.

It's not a new idea, but the group's founder Dhanush Dinesh says it is "the elephant in the room", insisting it's much harder to confront the fact that people's food is costing the planet.

"Unless we address this, we are not going to solve climate change," he tells The National, adding recent temperature records offer a renewed sense of urgency.

While global food production is responsible for 35 per cent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, the production of beef in particular, has the most damaging carbon footprint among all meats – 99.48kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per 1kg of product, according to data from scientific online publication Our World in Data.

Emissions are measured in CO2 equivalents, to take into account the impact of greenhouse gasses other than carbon dioxide. Lamb and mutton, which are heavily consumed in the Middle East, take second place, emitting 39.72kg of CO2e per 1kg of product.

Part of the reason why beef's emission levels are so high is that cows produce large amounts of methane as a by-product of their digestive process. Methane traps heat 34 times more potently than CO2, according to the UN. Deforestation for pasture is also a big issue in the meat industry, not least the carbon-intensive transportation of the final products.

Since the founding of Clim-Eat in 2021, Danush and his team, who are based in Amsterdam, have been working with governments and other interest groups to shed light on the impact of food on the environment and ways to improve food systems globally.

“What we really try to do at Clim-Eat is to try to bring new ideas to the table, and then work with partners to execute the ideas,” he says.

Although the organisation works mostly on a policy level, Dinesh says individual diet has a lot to do with the current fight against climate change.

"My feeling at the moment, after working quite a lot in policy, is that change is only going to happen if individuals take action," he says.

“At a global policy level, we have the Paris Agreement, we have the Glasgow agreement and we will have another one at the upcoming Cop28 in the UAE. All these things are happening, countries have different national policies, but still, we are not doing enough."

Alluding to the UN leader's recent remarks, Dinesh says: “We are really paying the price, and the only thing, I think, that can change the game is if individuals take responsibility and action."

Many are taking steps, he acknowledges, but insists there is much more to do, including the “masses shifting their individual choices”, whether it's on the cars we drive or the food we eat.

Despite data about the damaging emissions produced by the food industry, Dinesh agrees it's a delicate subject.

With the global population now at eight billion, Dinesh says: "Soon we will be 10. We have to feed all these 10 billion, and we can't compromise on not having enough food.

“These choices will either make or break the planet."

Making a gradual transition

To bring down emissions of global food production, simply ditching meat could make a huge dent.

A recent study from the University of Oxford showed how plant-based diets are significantly less impactful on the environment than diets that contain about 100g of meat a day.

The study, published in the journal Nature Food, noted that food for vegan diets is produced using 75 per cent less climate-heating emissions, water pollution and land use. A vegan diet also cuts wildlife destruction by 66 per cent and water use by 54 per cent.

The researchers said it's the most comprehensive analysis of its kind. The study looked at the diets of 55,000 people in the UK and used data from 38,000 farms in 119 countries to take into account the impact of the way foods are produced and where they come from.

They concluded that animal-based food consumption has a clear environmental impact that “should prompt its reduction”.

Among the researchers' suggestions is to tax “high-carbon food”, parallel to how sugary drinks are levied with prohibitive tariffs. But the UK government has previously said it was not going to dictate what people should and should not eat.

Even Dinesh acknowledges how taxing food products such as beef will be “very difficult” to implement.

“Taxation could work as a mechanism to shift behaviour away from high-carbon foods, but I don't see it happening very easily in many countries,” he explains.

An overnight change is also impossible, says Dinesh, adding: “The livestock industry is big and, as a business, it is powerful."

Last year, according to the US Department of Agriculture, there were more than one billion cows worldwide. In the US alone, there were more than 89 million.

“This is not going to disappear, but we need to transition out of it, and it's going to have to be gradual,” Dinesh says.

In recent years, the vegan industry in Dubai has seen a positive trajectory, with many restaurants and retailers catering to a growing number of people subscribing to the diet.

Ananda Shakespeare, who runs Dubai Vegan Days, a community group that helps people “enjoy and learn more about veganism” in Dubai, has followed the diet most of her life and is an advocate of a plant-based lifestyle.

Aside from environmental reasons, Shakespeare says a plant-based diet offers “enormous and noticeable health benefits”, and that this should be enough to convince people to at least look into it.

“Do your research. Look into quick and healthy recipes to get you going,” she says, recognising how difficult it might be for people to completely, and quickly, change their diets.

“It doesn't take long to discover the health benefits, and easy recipes to ensure optimal health,” she says.

“Whatever fad diets you've heard about, adopting a diet rich in natural, unprocessed vegetables, fruits, pulses and grains is the best diet for anyone and everyone."

Clim-Eat's Dinesh says it's all about having a balanced diet. It might be easier, he explains, for people to swap red meat with alternative protein only occasionally, instead of going fully vegan.

“Let's strive for balanced nutrition and sustainable diets,” he says.

In the end, he thinks ditching meat might never be for everyone, but hopes: “If we bring two-thirds of society behind this idea of a balanced diet, that's going to make a huge difference.”

Updated: August 16, 2023, 10:18 AM