Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

In my new article published in Climate Policy, I outline the need for strong and rapid greenhouse gas reductions from the agriculture sector, and propose a three-step strategy for including animal to plant sourced protein shifts in climate policy. The article covers five main aspects:

  1. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions strongly and rapidly from all sectors,
  2. The consequences of failing to reduce emissions from animal agriculture,
  3. A potential strategy for including animal to plant protein shifts in climate policy,
  4. The co-benefits of including animal to plant protein shifts in climate policy,
  5. The support measures needed for successfully including animal to plant protein shifts in climate policy.

The three-step strategy I propose for including animal to plant protein shifts in climate change mitigation policy is:

Step 1. Peaking livestock animal numbers at their current levels, and declining from herein.

Step 2. Reduce livestock products with the highest emissions first – at the global level this would be beef, followed by cow milk, pig meat, chicken meat and so on.

Step 3. Replace livestock products with ‘best available food’ – plant sourced foods which optimise the switch in terms of greenhouse gas reduction, health benefits and wider ecosystem advantages.

I realise that my proposal has (particularly challenging) implications for policy makers, industry and consumers – in this blog I take the opportunity to provide further context for those implications.

In reducing greenhouse gas emissions by as much and as soon as possible from all sectors, we’re seeking to minimise the negative consequences of temperature rise – which include but are not limited to food insecurity, hunger, famine, malnutrition, disease, homelessness, mass migration, poverty, conflict, wildlife loss and ecosystem collapse.  It is crucial that we keep in mind what we are trying to avoid and that changes to current policy, industry and consumer norms are not unreasonable requests – they are necessary components for creating a safe planet for ourselves and future generations. We also need to consider what we would be potentially gaining – a planet with functioning, restored ecosystems that are not only important for our well-being, but are critical to addressing the current wildlife crisis. Here is just one example of ecosystem recovery that can occur after livestock removal – using findings from field research. Restoring ecosystems is also important for mitigating climate change, as regenerating vegetation, such as trees, removes carbon from the atmosphere for long term storage. As animal agriculture is a major land user and plant crops require much less land, shifting from animal to plant protein offers the potential to restore land no longer needed for food production back to its natural habitat.

Going forward, there is no such thing as business as usual – for both the food industry and in terms of the food we consume. We either change to align our emissions with temperature goals that reduce climate change impacts – or we leave the catastrophic effects of runaway temperature rise to force change upon us. With animal to plant protein shifts, we are not starting from scratch. Many consumers are already making the switch, mainly driven by health, environment and animal welfare concerns, and the food industry is adapting by creating plant-based protein products that have a high resemblance to animal-sourced protein foods, such as burgers and nuggets – but a much smaller footprint. The United Nations Environment Programme recently gave two plant-based protein producers, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, their 2018 Champions of the Earth award for providing lower impact alternatives to beef. Many food service establishments are re-imagining menus to increase the focus on plant based options. Forward Food is one example of a large scale programme facilitating the shift to Paris compliant food systems, by training thousands of food service professionals in the public and private sector to create plant based dishes that satisfy consumers and help institutes meet their sustainability goals. Forest Green Rovers, a football club in the UK, exemplifies how animal to plant protein shifts in the food service sector can be commercially viable, and also help attain sustainability credentials, including the United Nations carbon neutral certification.

We need to think about the switch in terms of the foods we would be eating much more of – many of them we already eat abundantly today. Dishes rich in beans, lentils, peas, grains, fruits and vegetables – and some nuts and seeds. There is no hardship in eating delicious foods that give us health benefits and help tackle some of our most serious environmental problems.

The transition from animal based to plant based food systems must be a concerted effort, adequately supported to address implications for policy makers, the food industry and consumers. Please read the journal article for the full details.

Photos: (1), (2) by Helen Harwatt, (3) by Jenny Chandler

About the Authors

Helen Harwatt

Helen Harwatt is a Farmed Animal Law and Policy Fellow on the Animal Law and Policy Program, at the Harvard Law School.