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22nd Feb 2020

UN report: eat less meat to combat climate crisis

  • EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan in 2017 - cutting ham in Spain (Photo: European Commission)

Tackling food waste and reducing meat consumption can contribute signicantly to staving off the worst effects of climate change, the United Nations' climate panel said in a report published Thursday (8 August).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that between 25 to 30 percent of all food produced is lost or wasted.

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  • Then president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, at a barbecue in Lisbon in 2013 (Photo: European Parliament)

Global food waste and food loss was responsible for between eight and 10 percent of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere.

According to definitions by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, food loss is "any food that is lost in the supply chain between the producer and the market", while food waste refers to the discarding of food that is still safe and nutritious.

"Technical options such as improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure, transport, packaging, retail and education can reduce food loss and waste across the supply chain," said the IPCC report.

In the EU, around 88m tonnes of food with an estimated value of €143bn is wasted every year.

Last year, EU member states agreed that they would reduce food waste and food loss.

But while they agreed that the EU would make a "contribution" towards achieving the UN sustainable development goal of halving global food waste per capita by 2030, the EU countries stopped short of adopting a specific reduction target for themselves.

The IPCC report also pointed out that changes in people's diets can bring significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Basically, replacing meat with plant-based products decreases someone's carbon footprint.

The IPCC estimated that such dietary changes could reduce global annual emissions by between 0.7 and eight gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent by 2050. A gigatonne is a billion tonnes.

The figures in the report cited above were accompanied with the assessment that based on the available research, they could be presented with "medium confidence".

No forced vegetarianism

Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 49.3 gigatonnes in 2016, with a bit more than four gigatonnes emitted in the EU.

"We don't want to tell people what to eat," IPCC climatologist Hans-Otto Portner told journalists.

"But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect."

The report gives some examples of what policymakers can do to reduce their citizens' meat consumption:

"Public health policies to improve nutrition, such as increasing the diversity of food sources in public procurement, health insurance, financial incentives, and awareness-raising campaigns, can potentially influence food demand, reduce healthcare costs, contribute to lower GHG emissions and enhance adaptive capacity," said the report, adding that this statement was made with "high confidence".

The EU institutions in Brussels themselves still have a long way to go in that regard.

While some of their canteens sport posters informing customers of their carbon footprint, the food that is served is still predominantly meat-based.

There has however been a long taboo among EU policymakers to discuss the climate impact of citizens' diets.

And earlier this year, EUobserver revealed how the EU has allocated around €71.5m in three years on programmes promoting European meat.

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