Eat less red meat to help save the planet

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People should eat no more than two portions of red meat per week to help the environment and meet increasing global food demand, scientists have concluded.

Population growth and the trend for Westerners eating more meat means that soon farmers will not be able to raise enough livestock, a study by Cambridge and Aberdeen universities found. The researchers warned that attempting to produce more meat could be devastating for the environment.

Increased deforestation, fertiliser use and livestock methane emissions are likely to cause greenhouse gas emissions from food production to rise by almost 80 per cent by 2050, they said. They also warned that without radical changes to diets, the food industry alone would produce dangerous climate change, even if every other industry was to cut carbon emissions to zero. Cambridge co-author Prof Keith Richards said: “This is not a radical vegetarian argument; it is an argument about eating meat in sensible amounts as part of healthy, balanced diets.

“Managing the demand better, for example by focusing on health education, would bring double benefits — maintaining healthy populations, and greatly reducing critical pressures on the environment.”

According to the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, current trends in food production will mean that by 2050 crop land will have expanded by 42 per cent and fertiliser use increased by 45 per cent over 2009 levels. A further tenth of the world’s pristine tropical forests will also have disappeared.

The study’s authors tested a scenario where all countries were assumed to have an “average” balanced diet — without excessive consumption of sugars, fats, and meat products.

The average balanced diet included two 85g (3oz) portions of red meat and five eggs per week, and a portion of poultry each day.

Lead researcher Bojana Bajzelj, from the University of Cambridge’s department of engineering, said: “Food production is a main driver of biodiversity loss and a large contributor to climate change and pollution, so our food choices matter.”

Co-author Professor Pete Smith, from the University of Aberdeen, said that without changes to food consumption trends, humanity would have to completely remove or offset carbon emissions from the energy and industry sectors which is “practically impossible”. Therefore, he said: “As well as encouraging sustainable agriculture, we need to rethink what we eat.”