In this file:
· New Research Confirms What We Eat Is Central to the Climate Crisis
· How shifting from meat-heavy to plant-based diets can help allay the climate crisis
· Laugh if you want, but the 'McPlant' burger is a step to a greener world
· Beyond the impossible: Lab-grown meat is better for the planet -- if you'll eat it
New Research Confirms What We Eat Is Central to the Climate Crisis
A decade after writing a book about agriculture's connection to climate change, Anna Lappé interviews the author of a new study that confirms we can’t bring down emissions without addressing the food system.
By Anna Lappé, Civil Eats
November 18, 2020
A new study published in Science offers a stark warning about the climate crisis: Even if we completely halted fossil fuel use in the near term, we would still blow through the carbon budget needed to avoid catastrophic climate change unless we change the trajectory of emissions from the global food sector. Although many have warned about the climate impact of modern food production and land use, this new science is soberingly clear, and it has garnered attention around the world.
Without radically reducing emissions from agriculture, the research shows we won’t meet the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit average warming to 1.5°C – 2°C degrees. And yet, even those targets still position us to face some pretty extreme climate impacts.
Civil Eats talked with Michael Clark, a researcher at the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford and one of the lead authors on the study, about the findings, what they teach us about collective action to move the needle on climate, and how we might build the political will to do so.
Why does the food system have such a big climate toll?
One of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions from food systems is meat, and within that red meat from ruminants: beef, sheep, goats, and—to a lesser extent—other livestock like pork. The reason why ruminants have a relatively large impact is two-fold: They’re particularly inefficient at converting grass into things we can eat; or, if they’re not being fed grass, converting soy or other feed into food for humans. This matters because you have to include the climate impacts of producing the feed we then give to cows and other ruminants. Another reason why ruminants are particularly high emitters is because during their digestive process, they convert their food into methane, a potent greenhouse gas that they then burp.
The other large source of emissions within food systems is from fertilizer use—from how it is processed to emissions from application. Nitrogen naturally converts into nitrous oxide, which is one of the other very potent greenhouse gases.
This I think has been a blind spot. We’ve disrupted the carbon cycle, but we’ve disrupted the nitrogen cycle, too.
Exactly. Estimates are that humans have doubled the amount of reactive nitrogen in the world—that is human sources of reactive nitrogen are at least as large as the amount of reactive nitrogen that is naturally available. Not ideal.
Your findings paint a picture based on current trends. What trends did you track? ...
Do you feel the story of food systems emissions has been late to the game in climate change? ...
Talk about some of the main levers for change. First, plant-rich diets: Let’s get into what you mean by that and why this diet shift makes a difference ...
Let’s talk about another lever for reducing food system emissions; what you and your co-authors call “healthy calories” ...
Food waste has gotten a lot more attention in the past few years—in part, I think, because the percent of food that is wasted is so high and because addressing food waste feels so doable ...
Let’s talk about what you are seeing in terms of policy responses ...
One of the big food-climate debates is about soil carbon sequestration and livestock. What do you think about those who argue for livestock’s ability to rehabilitate soils? ...
Do you feel like any parts of your paper have been misunderstood as this complex story gets translated for the general public? ...
I know one question those who work on climate often gets asked is, “Are you optimistic or pessimistic?”—but, I feel I should ask the same of you ...
Right. As they say, the best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago. The second best time is today ...
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How shifting from meat-heavy to plant-based diets can help allay the climate crisis
A new study shows that moving to a plant-based diet is critical, but governments have been slow to act.
By Lili Pike, Vox
Nov 17, 2020
Many of the massive wildfires that have scorched the Amazon this summer and in recent years can be linked to dinner plates in China and other countries around the world. Cattle ranchers have been using illegal burning to tame the rainforest into pastureland to meet rising global beef demand, a strategy that spells disaster for climate change and biodiversity.
These fires are but the latest distress signal from a deeply unsustainable global food system. Emissions are embedded in every part of the food supply chain, from deforestation to grow crops or raise cattle, as in Brazil — which releases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide — to rice fields and cow burps, which emit methane, another potent greenhouse gas.
A new study published in Science reveals just how important tackling food-related emissions is to mitigating the swiftly accelerating climate crisis. For the first time, the researchers isolated food system emissions and showed that these emissions alone will most likely put the Paris agreement climate targets out of reach.
Even if all non-food greenhouse gas emissions were cut off today, the researchers project that food systems emissions would cause us to cross the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise around the middle of the century. That is under their business-as-usual scenario in which food system trends from the past 50 years extend forward.
The food system is responsible for about 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions currently, and these emissions are expected to rise rapidly as people around the world become more affluent and consume more meat and dairy products.
Given that dire trend, immediate changes to the way we produce and eat food are essential to stay within the Paris agreement targets, said Michael Clark, a researcher at Oxford University who co-authored the study. “The best time would have been 20 years ago, but the second-best time to start talking about food is now,” he said.
The study models five interventions to rapidly cut food emissions. The most effective, according to the authors, is the global adoption of a plant-rich diet. Yet relying on individuals to make a massive behavior change, especially in wealthy countries like the US where per capita meat consumption is far above the global average, is difficult and risky, given the urgency of the climate crisis.
Which means policymakers need to get more creative, and ambitious, to help consumers eat less meat and dairy. So far, governments have been slow to embrace dietary change as a climate solution, but they can draw from public health policies that have successfully changed diets to start taking action.
The global food system alone could use up all the remaining carbon budget ...
Dietary change is fraught, but public health policies can provide guidance ...
Beyond meat: Food production needs to change too ...
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Laugh if you want, but the 'McPlant' burger is a step to a greener world
McDonald’s sells 75 burgers every second. Its embrace of plant-based meat alternatives could make a real difference
Adrienne Matei, Opinion, The Guardian (UK)
Nov 18, 2020
When McDonald’s announced its plan to launch a plant-based burger earlier this month, Twitter users were quick to mock the product’s unimaginative name: the … McPlant.
But no matter what you think of the fast food chain’s marketing department, the McPlant actually represents a meaningful milestone for plant-based protein products. This is a real step toward a greener world. While other chains, such as Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts, have already launched plant-based meat items, the impact of the planet’s most popular fast food chain – which sells a dizzying 75 burgers every second – could be decisive in allowing plant-based meat alternatives to catch on in the mainstream.
Simply put, the more accessible meat alternatives are, the better, given the need for humans to change the ways we consume and produce food to ensure a sustainable future.
As of now, the global population is growing towards an estimated 9.7 billion people by 2050, and worldwide meat consumption is on the rise. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that livestock farming accounts for 14.5% of humanity’s annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, but other experts have calculated that the industry’s impact may be even higher.
Earlier this month, an academic study found that food production – including the effects of land clearing, deforestation, fertilizer use and livestock – accounts for a third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. “Even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted,” the authors concluded, current trends in global food systems would prevent the achievement of the Paris Agreement’s target to keep global temperature rise below 1.5C compared to pre-industrial figures by the end of the century (which other studies have found we have about a decade left to do). “Meeting the 1.5C target requires rapid and ambitious changes to food systems as well as to all nonfood sectors,” they write.
Beef is a particular climate offender, requiring 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer, and 11 times more water to produce than other animal proteins like chicken or pork.
Plant-based meat alternatives are a relatively new product category. Most of what we know about their sustainability comes from studies funded by their producers, such as this 2018 research that found that manufacturing pea protein-based Beyond Meat burgers creates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions and requires much less water and land than traditional beef burger patties. (McDonald’s McPlant was developed with Beyond Meat.) This is not to suggest they’re the be-all-end-all of eco-friendly eating: as Oxford researcher Marco Springmann told CNBC, such patties still have fives times the carbon footprint of a bean burger, putting them about on par with chicken. More independent research into their sustainability is needed. Nonetheless, plant-based burgers are certainly greener – and more humane – than industrially farmed beef.
Even without committing fully to a plant-based diet, simply choosing to eat less meat in our day-to-day lives can make an appreciable impact on the environment. A study published this August determined that if everyone in the US on average reduced their consumption of beef, pork and poultry by a quarter in favor of plant proteins, the country would emit 82m metric tons fewer greenhouse gases annually.
As Fast Company’s Adele Peters points out...
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Beyond the impossible: Lab-grown meat is better for the planet -- if you'll eat it
Cultured meat could be better for the environment, but whether you'll want to eat it is another issue. And don't expect vegans and vegetarians to get on board.
Brian Cooley, C|Net
Nov. 18, 2020
Winston Churchill foresaw the biggest food innovation of the 21st century back in 1931: "We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."
Today that prospect nears, but is still so new it doesn't have a widely agreed-upon name: cultured meat, clean meat, lab-grown meat, cultivated meat or, by its detractors, test tube meat.
All those terms denote meat grown from animal cells, rather than from a living, sentient animal. I'll call it cultured meat, but regardless of name, it may start arriving at small scale in 2022 from companies such as Mosa Meat, Memphis Meats, Aleph Farms, and Meatable. It will be positioned as a more sustainable, environmentally friendly option for meat eaters. But who it will appeal to and at what price remains a different story.
More food, fewer resources
Meat production's footprint on natural resources is an accepted issue. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the livestock sector "is increasing pressure on ecosystems and natural resources" and "in some cases its impact on ecosystems is out of proportion with the economic significance of the sector." The FAO also estimates that 26% of the earth's land that isn't covered in ice is used for livestock grazing, and that 33% of all crop lands are used to grow crops to feed to livestock that are fed to people in a sort of nutritional bucket brigade.
Cultured meat doesn't require grazing land or tons of feed. Instead it's grown in bioreactors like those already used to produce pharmaceuticals and ethanol. A few animal cells are chosen for the type of meat desired, and placed on a biological scaffold to grow into the right shape and structure in a bioreactor that turbocharges cell growth from a speck to a serving.
In many ways, the process is old news: "We already grow animal cells at scale," says Ryan Bethencourt, co-founder of venture capital firm IndieBio, an early investor in cultured meat startup Memphis Meats. "All the big pharma companies essentially have big protein factories" for the development of biologic drugs, he says. The first cultured meat hamburger was unveiled (and eaten) in 2013.
But if the basic technology for growing cultured meat is relatively clear, how much energy will be required at scale is less so.
"Cultured meat production will likely require more industrial energy than do livestock to produce equivalent quantities of meat," says Alison Van Eenennaam, a cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, in a presentation to the 2019 Range Beef Cow Symposium.
A paper from Arizona State University, which is cited by both clean meat doubters and backers, suggests cultured meat "could require smaller quantities of agricultural inputs and land than livestock," but at a potentially higher energy demand. The reason? It doesn't use animals whose bodies provide temperature regulation, waste elimination and other functions that will have to be replaced by industrial equivalents. But the Good Food Institute, a leading connector of cultured meat innovators and investors, says that clean energy will develop alongside the cultured meat sector to "reduce the life cycle emissions of a clean meat facility by 40% to 80%."
Even if substantial energy is needed to produce clean meat, there could still be large environmental rewards. A 2018 paper by Hanna Tuomisto of University of Helsinki calculates a potentially large reduction in greenhouse gases with cultured meat compared to raising cows and sheep for meat...
Feeding more people who want more meat ...
Will it work in the grocery aisle? ...
Is it food or is it tech? ...
Meat in the age of COVID-19 ...
What's next for cultured meat ...
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