Can we eat our way out of Climate Change?


BBC World Service’s programme ‘Can we eat our way out of Climate Change?’ is well worth a listen! Carry on reading to discover some of the important and fascinating issues raised.

The UN’s latest report on climate change states that food production generates one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions- this accounts for as much as that produced by all forms of transport combined. With such efforts made by people across the world to switch to more green modes of transport, why is there not an equal effort to switch to more sustainable diets too? What would it take to move the world towards alternative climate-friendly diets? And would this alone be enough to slow down climate change?

Why is there not more of an effort to switch to alternative diets?

  • A key issue is that the majority of people are unaware that our diet has an effect on the environment.
  • However, even when people are aware, many are reluctant to change their diets. Sociologist Catherine Happer of the University of Glasgow puts this down to deep-rooted cultural associations with meat. For instance, those questioned in Brazil felt that a meat-free diet would leave them marginalised in a society that frequently socialises over barbeques.
  • Convenience: the common preconception is that it is harder to find vegetarian meals and to follow a sustainable diet since you have to educate yourself on what fruit and veg are in season.
  • Price: meat options are often cheaper than vegetables in

From Happer’s research, it seems that people are less willing to change their diets solely for the good of the environment, however, when diet change is linked to one’s health, people appear to be far more receptive. Perhaps this explains why people have been more open to adopting greener transport after learning about the effect of air pollution on our health. Is this a method governments could employ to encourage their citizens to reduce meat consumption?

What would it take to move the world towards alternative climate-friendly diets?

It appears that people need some sort of incentive, other than slowing down the effects of climate change, to push them away from consuming animal products.

  • Financial incentives: Governments could try the riskier option of introducing a carbon tax on food (something currently being considered in Denmark) but this is likely to face much opposition in countries such as the US and UK where there are aversions to the state interfering with personal decisions such as one’s diet.beef-1845296_960_720
  • Happer argues that more subtle measures such as adjusting the layout of food in supermarkets and gradually reducing the amount of meat options on menus are the most effective ways of tackling the problem.
  • However, according to American bio-chemist Pat Brown, incentives to eat less meat are not necessary since it’s not our meat consumption that needs to change but our meat production. He claims that animals are ‘convenient but inefficient’ at producing meat and has dedicated his time to recreating the molecular structure of burgers out of simple, affordable, healthy plant ingredients (lab burgers). He believes that animals have limits and we should utilise our ever-improving technology to produce food so that people don’t have to stop eating the food that they enjoy.

Brown’s vision is that over the next 50 years the idea of eating meat will become as archaic as people travelling around on horse and carts.

Can we eat our way out of climate change?

The programme concludes that the simple answer is probably not BUT changing the food we eat is one of the fastest ways that we can slow down the effects of climate change, we just need enough of us to make the change. It seems our next step is to firstly raise awareness of the link between diet and climate change before finding further incentives for people to eat less animal products. We won’t know without trying and is the alternative worth the risk?

BBC World Service will be repeating the programme on Saturday 7th January at 22:06 or you can find it here.