2018 Lancet Countdown Canada Report on Climate Change

Humans and the livestock they consume is a tale that impacts lives in a deep and meaningful sense. Human history is interwoven with the production of meat for consumption, and its availability and nutritional value as a source of protein has played a major part in the diet as far back as we can imagine, shaping regional identities and global movements. The emotionally charged debate over the ethical suitability of meat consumption may never reach a conclusion, but it is only comparatively recently that the climate impact of livestock rearing and the nutritional and health issues caused by meat have become a pressing concern.

Achieving a healthy diet from a sustainable source is a struggle new enough to countries with an abundance of food that it has proven difficult to enact meaningful change. Government efforts to curb consumption and thus curb weight gain in high-income countries are yet to display a meaningful effect, and most of these efforts are focused on sugar or fat. Similarly, the global ecological sustainability of farming habits has not been a major topic of conversation until the last few decades. It’s only now that we’re beginning to have a conversation about the role of meat in both of these debates, and the evidence suggests a reckoning with our habits is long overdue.

Meat production doesn’t just affect the ecosystem by the production of gases, and studies now question the system of production’s direct effect on global freshwater use, change in land use, and ocean acidification. A recent paper in Science claims that even the lowest-impact meat causes “much more” environmental impact than the least sustainable forms of plant and vegetable production. Population pressures, with a global population, predicted to increase by a third between 2010 and 2050, will push us past these breaking points.

Another important addition to the conversation around meat is the PLoS One paper discussing health-related taxes for red meat. The paper offers up some compelling claims as justification, including the suggestion that the health-related costs directly attributable to the consumption of red and processed meat will be US$285 billion in 2020 or 0·3% of worldwide gross GDP. 4·4% of all deaths worldwide would be caused by the red or processed meat. Of course, this causal mathematical model should be taken with a pinch of salt, but it does follow on from 2015 WHO classification of some meats as proven carcinogens, based on the International Agency For Research On

Cancer assessment of a “strong” link between red meat and the mechanistic evidence for carcinogenicity. The question of what can be done is more challenging than the question of what should be done. Countries, and their citizens, should look to limit their consumption of intensively farmed meats, both for health and environmental reasons. The issue of how this change comes about is part of a wider conversation that we all need to start having about meat. Will a simple tax on red and processed meat change habits to the extent required? A simple measure enacted alone runs the risk of unfairly targeting those whose budgets only stretched to the cheaper processed meats. Stating that those who can suddenly not afford meat should just switch to a vegetarian diet anyway is not a balanced addition to the debate over meat’s role in society. However, targeted taxation has shown positive results in areas of strong health concern such as tobacco, although these successes are similarly accompanied by discussions of the regressive nature of such a tax. The likelihood is that action will need to take a wider systems approach, with a very public conversation about meat informing a host of measures from deciding the appropriate application of government farming subsidies and finding a way to ameliorate the true costs to humans and the planet of certain processing methods, all the way through to slowly changing consumer habits over time, possibly through use of targeted taxation but certainly through an engaging, balanced conversation. No one system fits every country. Meat might be common to almost every society but its role in each is different and deeply culturally ingrained.

So what is a healthy amount of red or processed meat? It’s looking increasingly like the answer, for both the planet and the individual, is very little. Saying this is one thing. Getting the world to a place where we have the ability to balance the desire to eat whatever we want with our need to preserve the ecosystem we rely on to sustain ourselves is quite another. The conversation has to start soon.  – The Lancet