Wednesday

25th May 2022

Interview

Cheap meat is a bigger problem for climate and health

  • Meat - a bigger problem than climate change. (Photo: Lukas Budimaier)

Meat is the driving cause behind a wide range of ills, from obesity to climate change and deforestation, and it’s time for politicians to do something about it, said a leading scholar on sustainability issues.

”The climate change debate has so far mostly focussed on cutting carbon pollution from transport and energy because cheap meat has become a kind of human right in our modern societies,” said Johan Rockstroem, a professor of environmental science at Stockholm University and executive director of the research institute, Stockholm Resilience Centre.

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  • "We must make agriculture a carbon sink, which absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than add to it", said Rockstroem. (Photo: Eat forum)

”We need to take a step back however and acknowledge that there is no place in our food systems for cereal-fed, industrial meat production that doesn’t comply with basic animal welfare standards. Such meat is only cheap because it is being subsidised: by the animals, the planet and sometimes also by state subventions.”

Rockstroem spoke to EUobserver at the Eat food forum, an annual gathering of people representing science, politics, business and civil society, which was recently held in Stockholm.

The meeting was organised by the Eat foundation, an initiative by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Norwegian hotel tycoons Gunhild and Petter Stordalen and the Wellcome trust, which promotes a holistic view on how to shift food systems towards sustainability, health, security, and equity within the boundaries of the planet.

Broken food system

An Eat-funded research team will next year unveil guidelines for a diet that is both healthy and sustainable enough to feed 9-10 billion people by 2050.

Rockstroem said it is clear that the current system is all but broken.

Agriculture is the number-one cause of greenhouse gases, deforestation, depletion of freshwater resources, and the extinction of species.

It is the main user of antibiotics, and as such, a driver of the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance.

Such problems are set to become more acute as demand for meat and dairy products is booming, both in developing countries and rich ones. Demand is spiking both in the US, which already consumes more meat per capita than any other country, and in environmentally-conscious countries such as Rockstroem’s Sweden.

The challenge is not only to reduce the negative impact of agriculture on the environment, according to Rockstroem.

"In the future, we must make agriculture a carbon sink, which absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than add to it. But we must also reform agriculture so it delivers on the UN sustainable development goals.”

Future food systems should both ensure the end of hunger and malnutrition as well as obesity, which is a rapidly increasing problem as markets are overly abundant on processed foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat.

A staggering one third of all food - or 1.3 billion tonnes - is thrown away every year, while some 800 million people go to bed hungry. Another 2.2 billion eat so much they risk dying from cardiovascular problems, diabetes and other diet-related diseases, according to a recent study by the University of Washington, which was presented at the Eat conference.

Industry response

”If we are to have a chance on climate we need nothing less than a food revolution,” Rockstroem said.

Industry representatives gathering at the Eat forum said they were taking the challenge seriously - from start-ups developing laboratory-grown meat, to pension fund managers investing in such companies.

Representatives of "big food" including Danone, Kellogg's, Nestle, Pepsi and Unilever also recognised the food system has to be reinvented.

"The food system we know is coming to an end... We cannot treat food like a commodity anymore," said Danone vice president Emmanuelle Wargon, adding that the future should be based on "reconnecting with communities" and "enabling citizens".

Earlier this year, 25 companies representing a total annual revenue of $800 (€718) billion joined the Food Reform for Sustainability and Health (Fresh) programme, an initiative brokered by Eat and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Swedish furniture giant Ikea is also offering vegetarian alternatives to its customers, as the company is currently expanding its restaurant business.

"The horse-meat scandal was the best thing that ever happened to our business," Ikea food director Michael La Cour told EUobserver.

"It made us sit down and think about our model, and acted as a catalyst for our new direction."

Ikea launched "veggie balls" to compete with its iconic Swedish meatballs. 22 percent of customers shop at the furniture retail giant for food and it hopes to grow this clientele further.

Meat-free options are cheaper, making them more attractive to customers.

La Cour told EUobserver, however, that Ikea had no plans to scrap their hotdogs - despite a call at the conference to ban processed meat and white bread - nor does it intend to raise the price of its cheap meat products.

A call for EU protectionism

Rockstroem said the food revolution demands that politicians regulate and even ban certain types of food.

"The industry is recognising its role, they aren't unwilling to serve healthy and sustainable food. But competition is tough, and a company that bans bad food on its own can see its clients switch to competitors. We need common rules for all to solve this prisoners dilemma".

Noting that it could be ”unpopular” for a politician to advocate for higher food prices, he put his hope with the young generation, who ”can see the value of more aggressive methods in support of sustainable healthy food”.

Rockstroem was also aspiring for what he called a "Trump effect".

The US president's decision to pull his country out of the Paris climate agreement has clouded global efforts to keep global warming below two degrees compared to pre-industrial times.

But Rockstroem argued that it offers a "fantastic window for the EU" to reconsider its free-trade attitude and ban imports of substandard food products from the US and other countries, which made it impossible for locally produced, high quality agriculture to compete.

"The EU has been reluctant to pursue the protectionist food policy that we need, with tough health and environmental standards. But this has moved us in a dangerous direction, and Sweden in particular. Despite good conditions for agriculture, we have the lowest food safety of all OECD countries and need to import 60 percent of our food. The current system is not working," the professor said.

The Nordic countries were however "best placed in the world to show Trump how wrong he is".

"We have all the conditions to deliver on Paris and the sustainable development goals. We have the seas, fish to replace meat. We have good conditions for agriculture and clean energy," said Rockstroem and welcomed a recent initiative by the Nordic prime ministers to reform their agricultural in order to achieve the UN sustainable development goals.

"If the Nordics ever doubted their responsibility in the world, this was confirmed by Trump."

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