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Trevor Hancock: Food policy must address the issue of meat

It’s not a good time to be an Albertan.

It’s not a good time to be an Albertan. Not only is there growing opposition to the oil industry in general and the oilsands in particular, and to the pipelines needed to get their product to market, but their second iconic industry — beef cattle ranching — is also coming under attack.

And as with the oilsands, the reasons are that the industry has adverse impacts upon both the environment and health.

According to the latest inventory of greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada, animal and crop production accounted for eight per cent of total emissions in 2014, an increase of 21 per cent since 1990. (This is not as bad as it might seem, since the population grew by 28 per cent in the same period.)

However, this does not include emissions from energy used during the agricultural production process, nor the energy and other emissions that result from the production of fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals.

More worryingly, agriculture accounted for more than a quarter of methane emissions and almost three-quarters of nitrous oxide emissions. Both these gases are more potent greenhouse gases than the carbon dioxide we usually worry about. In fact, methane is more than 20 times as potent, and nitrous oxide about 300 times as potent.

Livestock agriculture is of particular concern because its emissions account for almost two-thirds of all agricultural emissions. There are two main sources: Enteric fermentation (in digesting their food, cattle produce and burp out large amounts of methane), and the storage and handling of cattle, pork and poultry manure, which produces methane and nitrous oxides. In fact, methane emissions from cattle (both beef and dairy) account for almost a quarter of Canada’s total methane emissions.

Between them, enteric fermentation and manure management account for more than half of GHG emissions from agriculture. Most of the rest comes from emissions from soils, largely due to the use of fertilizers, which accounts for a further 39 per cent.

On a global scale, the impact of agriculture is massive. A 2016 report of the UN Environment Program’s International Resource Panel estimated that GHG emissions from the food sector in 2010 were about one-quarter of all human-caused emissions. This is only going to get worse as low and middle-income countries turn to a more Western diet, high in meat.

According to data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, world average meat consumption per person doubled between 1961 and 2011, but even so, in 2011 people in African countries derived only 88 calories per day from meat, while those in the high-income regions derived more than 400 calories per day from meat.

While there are many forms of meat, beef is particularly problematic. For example, according to a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, although the environmental impacts of dairy, poultry, pork and egg production in the U.S. are roughly the same per calorie consumed, “beef production requires 28, 11, five and six times more land, irrigation water, GHG and reactive nitrogen, respectively, than the average of the other livestock categories.”

Or as a report in the National Geographic put it in 2014: “For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork or three of beef.” This makes meat — and in particular beef — a bad bargain.

Small wonder then that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in the U.S. recommended last year that Americans should eat a diet that is “lower in animal-based foods” or that the UN Environment Program’s International Resource Panel recommended that we need to “reorient away from resource-intensive products such as meat.” The panel noted that if high-income countries reduced their meat and dairy consumption by 50 per cent, this “could lead to up to

40 per cent lower nutrient losses and greenhouse gas emissions” from the food sector.

The federal government has indicated it will work to create a national food policy “that promotes healthy living and safe food.” It is also committed to reducing Canada’s GHG emissions. I hope it will have the wisdom and courage to address the issue of meat, environment and health as part of that policy.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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