Reducing meat consumption for 1.3 billion: A panacea for sustainability and health?

Cattle raised on a farm in Yunnan in southwest China. Photo: ILRI
Oct 2016

Some have hailed new dietary guidelines released by the Chinese government as a big step toward the nation reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. But the full picture is more complicated.

Peter Black and Catherine Machalaba are part of oneHEALTH, a global research project of Future Earth. Black is a member of the project's Scientific Steering Committee and Machalaba serves as Science Officer.

In May, the Chinese government received global attention for releasing new dietary guidelines that, among other things, recommended that citizens halve the amount of meat from current recommended consumption levels. The guidelines, which were issued by the Chinese Nutrition Society, aim to address growing obesity challenges in the country. But they have also been heralded for their potential to contribute to slowing climate change, with some groups extrapolating the recommendations could prevent around one billion tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030.

The announcement is notable given the size of China’s population, representing over 18% of the world’s 7.3 billion people. If the guidelines are heeded, they may serve as a real-world example of the “contract and converge" principle. The idea is that high-income countries could reduce their consumption – in this case, of beef, pork and other meat – while low- and middle-income countries increase their consumption of meat. This tends to happen in most societies as incomes rise and standards of living improve. The levels of consumption across countries with different income levels would ideally converge at a common ceiling.

Health advocates have suggested that such a strategy could mirror how nations might work to address greenhouse gas emissions in general. China’s leadership in advancing this decrease in meat consumption may act as a catalyst for other countries to follow. Arriving just six months after the COP21 Paris Agreement on climate, the dietary guidelines are a uniquely public-oriented option for climate action. The guidelines, however, also highlight the important relationships between environmental and human health: addressing one may also have implications for the other, and in this case, there are many moving pieces.

Over recent decades we’ve seen – and expect to continue to see – a rise in the world average for consumption of both animal protein and overall calories (see "Sustainable Diets: What you Need to Know in 12 Charts"), posing major sustainability challenges. Livestock, for instance, contribute approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the total added by the transportation sector. That is due, in part, to the methane produced through digestion by ruminant animals, such as cattle and sheep. Water and fertiliser usage, as well as land requirements, for livestock feed production add to environmental impacts. Antimicrobials are also a common fixture of rearing livestock, and their use is projected to increase by 67% within the next 14 years. Injudicious use of antimicrobials in animal agriculture, including for non-therapeutic reasons like promoting livestock growth, contributes to the development of bacterial strains that are resistant to many antibiotics. In terms of diet, high meat intake, especially of red meat like beef, pork, lamb and processed meat, can also be a risk factor for heart disease, some cancers, type-2 diabetes and obesity. Reducing excess meat consumption globally may have benefits for preventing these health and environmental pressures.

At the same time, there are good reasons to eat meat, too: Meat contributes crucial benefits for nutrition by supplying proteins and is an important source of essential micronutrients, including vitamins A and B12, iron and zinc. Its production also provides livelihoods for 1.3 billion people globally, nearly half of which are poor farmers, and meat production is a source of economic solvency. Similarly, humans and livestock species have coevolved over generations, and many livestock producers employ strong biosecurity measures that promote health security.

Customers order from a McDonald's in Beijing. Photo: David Creswellvia Flickr

Over the past 25 years, China’s intake of meat and poultry has risen in both urban and rural settings as the country experienced rapid economic growth. The margin of undernourished persons in the country has also narrowed, although vegetable intake has declined. However, by OECD and FAO estimates, the per capita consumption of meat in China is still relatively low compared to many industrialised countries; in 2015, the U.S. and Australia topped the list with 100.4 and 92.5 kilograms of beef or veal, poultry, pork and sheep meat eaten per year per person, compared to half that, about 50 kilograms, in China. The new dietary guidelines, which recommend decreasing consumption by half to 40 to 75 grams of meat per person per day, would put China below the current global annual average, 34.1 kilograms.

China has a mixed record in climate policy. The nation invests heavily in renewable energy; with investments of 103 billion USD in 2015, it was the global leader in all renewables except hydropower. On the other hand, it still produced more carbon dioxide and methane emissions in total than any other country in the world as of 2011 and continued developing new coal capacity last year. China’s nutrition policy could have a similar trajectory: China is the planet’s leading producer of pig and sheep meat. Future contibutions to greenhouse gas emissions will be affected by the balance between changing diets and any increase in animal production – especially animals that generate methane like cows.

In that context, the new dietary guidelines may not change the paradigm for climate action. Even if successful in reducing meat consumption, they’re likely not a panacea: demand may shift to other sources of food, which may have other environmental or health impacts. Analyses suggest that growing vegetables and cereals produces less greenhouse gas emissions than raising livestock for each kilocalorie and gram of protein produced; but only select foods have been analyzed. For animals, emissions vary widely by species, breed, diet and many other factors. At the same time, even if in-country demand for meat diminishes, China may continue producing livestock for other markets.

Admittedly, there’s no easy algorithm – a concerted effort to reduce emissions must also maintain a balanced diet for nutritional health.

A cattle market in Kashgar, a city in western China. Photo: Aaron Chaleff via Flickr

Still, the updated guidelines provide an interesting example of how policy in one domain – here, nutrition – can intersect with other health, environment, agricultural and financial policies and priorities. A 1.25 trillion USD coalition of investors recently called on 16 major food companies to explore plant protein alternatives to reduce reliance on intensive livestock farming in light of environmental and health concerns. In parallel, Indonesia recently decided to place a moratorium on issuing permits for new palm oil plantations, an industry widely linked with deforestation. That environmental policy decision has important implications for public health. Deforestation in the region has caused haze that has increased the respiratory disease burden.

These financial, nutrition and land use decisions demonstrate the value of a One Health approach to global change, which brings together the human health, animal and environment sectors to gain a fuller understanding of their connections. Such an approach also considers how possible solutions to critical issues in the world can benefit all three arenas (or at least balance sometimes competing demands). One current initiative employing a One Health approach is the Livestock Global Alliance, which brings together the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, World Bank and other partners to promote sustainable, equitable and safe livestock production.

Climate and environment-smart choices in food production may help us more efficiently produce meat and other goods. For example, avoiding additional deforestation through practices that promote long-term productivity by prioritising the use of already-converted landscapes could promote resilience and ensure alignment to local environmental conditions. Reducing food waste, which takes up so much resources that it would rank as the third-most emitter of greenhouse gases if it were a country, as well as promoting animal health to reduce agricultural productivity losses can also help maximise the utility of the food systems we already have in place. We can no longer consider these problems in isolation – just like a balanced diet, we likely need a mix of ingredients and recipes to shape a sustainable and healthy food system.