'Meat-eating must halve to avert disaster'
Consumers must halve their daily meat intake, recycle more and waste less food if the world is to avoid ecological disaster, a new study claims.
The research from the University of Exeter has found that current Western meat-eating habits – where meat accounts for one-third of daily calorific intake – combined with a sharply rising population are unsustainable.
It highlights the disproportionate amount of land required to feed cattle, arguing that changes in lifestyle and farming could make space to grow crops for bio-energy and carbon storage.
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Published today in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, the research considers how to feed a population of 9.3 billion by 2050.
But to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to safe levels, it says global meat consumption must drop from 16.6 per cent to 15 per cent of average daily calorie intake – about half that of the average Western diet. The researchers argue that failing to bring down atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide means we would lose our natural ecosystems.
Lead researcher Tom Powell said: "Meat production involves significant energy losses. Only around four per cent of crops grown for livestock turn into meat."
The researchers generated four future scenarios, based on dietary preferences and agricultural efficiency.
Mathematical models were used to forecast the effects of each scenario, with only a "low-meat, high-efficiency" approach likely to achieve the two-degree rise in global temperatures now widely accepted as a safe threshold.
South West Liberal Democrat MEP Graham Watson said it made more sense to eat soya, which was 100 times more efficient than meat but equally nutritious, at least some of the time. But he said it was difficult to impose restrictions in a market economy, claiming that a combination of authoritarian measures to restrict supply and rapid education may be required.
The National Farmers' Union said farmers were working towards producing more while using less energy and having less impact on the environment. It said many of its members were exploring renewable energy, including wind and solar power, anaerobic digestion and biofuels.
Alex Stevens, NFU livestock adviser in the South West, said British beef also had "an important part to play in maintaining the countryside which we all enjoy".
"Eating lean red meat has an important role to play in a healthy balanced diet – it's a traditional part of the British lifestyle and is enjoyed by most of the population.
"Let's not forget either that cattle are extremely efficient converters of grass – a crop which we have in abundance in this part of the world and which fixes carbon in the same way as any other plant – into nutritious beef."