More than two thousand five hundred years ago, Gautama the Buddha promoted vegetarianism – not only because we need to stop killing animals especially cattle, but also because a plant-based diet is better and more nutritious for people.Through modern technology some countries are now virtually growing beef and marketing plant burgers which taste like beef.
On Thursday, the United Nations Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in a special report says not everyone needs to become a vegetarian, much less vegan, to keep the planet from overheating, but it would probably make things a lot easier if they did. That’s the ambiguous and -- for many on either side of this meaty issue -- unsatisfying conclusion of the comprehensive report on the link between climate change and how we feed ourselves, the French News Agency (AFP) says.
According to the IPCC’s special report, the core findings are crystal clear: climate change is threatening the world’s food supply, even as the way we produce food fuels global warming. Rising temperatures in tropical zones are starting to reduce yields, displace staple crops, and sap essential nutrients from food plants. At the same time, the global food system -- from farm to food court -- accounts for at least a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. With two billion more mouths to feed by mid-century, it cannot simply be scaled up without pushing Earth’s thermometer deep into the red zone, according to the Panel.
More than half of today’s food-related emissions come from the animal sector, and half of that from sheep and most of all cattle.
The IPCC report identifies the enormous impact that our dietary choices have on the environment. It is clear that reducing the demand for meat in diets is an important approach to lowering the environmental impact on the food system.
The livestock industry is a double climate threat: it replaces CO2 - absorbing forests -- notably in sub-tropical Brazil -- with land for grazing and soy crops for cattle feed. The animals also belch huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
On average, beef requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gases per unit of edible protein than basic plant proteins, notes the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based policy think tank, AFP says.
For all these reasons, the IPCC concludes, gravitating towards “balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods” would hugely help the climate change cause. This may sound like a ringing endorsement of vegetarianism, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the world must or should eschew meat altogether, the IPCC says.
Besides “coarse grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds,” that “balanced diet” also includes “animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-greenhouse gas emission systems,” the report adds.
There are several reasons the 100-plus authors stopped short of calling for a ban on carbon-intensive red meat. To begin with, calling for anything is not part of their brief. IPCC reports are based entirely on published, peer-reviewed research, and this one included thousands of data points. But the final step in a years-long process is approval by diplomats who tussle over how key passages are formulated, including what gets left in or out.
Another compelling reason not to espouse a purely plant-based diet is that billions of people around the world depend on fish and to a lesser extent meat for protein and nutrients that may not be readily available elsewhere. “More than 800 million people have insufficient food,” notes Harvard University’s Walter Willett, co-commissioner of a landmark study earlier this year in The Lancet proposing a “reference diet” for optimal health that is long on veggies, legumes and nuts, and short on meat, dairy and sugar, AFP adds. That diet, The Lancet study found, could feed a world of 10 billion people in 2050 -- but only barely. “We are suggesting a more balanced diet that has roughly 100 grammes per person per week of red meat -- a single serving once a week rather than every day,” co-author Johan Rockstrom, former director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Impacts, told AFP.
For Sri Lanka, this report is an eye-opener. For generations, most of our people have led a healthy life on a vegetable, fruit and grain diet with agriculture being the heart of our civilization. It would be difficult but we need to change our diets so that we will have fewer people suffering from ailments such as high density Cholesterol and diabetes. Mothers lovingly tell children to eat till their stomachs are full, but that is bad advice because there is no room for proper digestion. We need to eat well but more so, wisely. Taste alone is like paying lip-service to food. We need to focus on good nutrition.