A predominantly plant-based diet is needed to protect global biodiversity, and reduce the risk of further pandemics, research from top think tank Chatham House confirms.
Without reforming the current intensive animal-agriculture food system and reducing food waste, ecosystems will continue to suffer, the report states.
It was co-authored by Professor Tim Benton, Helen Harwatt, and Laura Wellesley and is supported by the UN environment program.
The report identifies intensive animal agriculture as the biggest driver of biodiversity loss. Animal farming now occupying almost 80 percent of agricultural land globally. What’s more, farmed animals now account for 60 percent of all mammals by mass.
Biodiversity, meaning the diversity of life, is vital in regulating the environment. It creates ecosystems that help remove more than half the CO2 emissions in the atmosphere each year.
Despite its importance, species extinction is expanding at an ‘unprecedented rate’. A quarter of animal and plant species are under threat across the globe.
“Indirectly, the food system also drives biodiversity loss through its contribution to climate change. The global food system is responsible for more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than any other aspect of our lives”, the report states.
‘Global herd of farmed animals’
The rise of intensive agriculture has driven down the prices of grains. Now, they’re grown for animal feed rather than human consumption – a move the report claims is behind the ‘global herd of farmed animals’ producing abundant GHG emissions.
The report also highlighted how millions of hectares of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed to make room for cattle ranching. By reducing global meat consumption, less land has to be cleared.
Is going plant-based the answer?
According to the report, if the entire US population switched from beef to beans it would free up almost 700,000 square km of cropland. This would account for 42 percent of the country’s entire cropland, which could be better used for ‘nature-friendly farming’ instead.
A shift of this kind would also help reach climate change goals. In addition, it would ‘likely contribute’ to improving dietary problems associated with eating red meat and processed meat.
Global changes to predominantly plant-based diets are necessary to meet the temperate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement, the report stated.
“The replacement of animal-sourced products, which now supply 18 percent of calories consumed by humans, could significantly reduce the pressure on land from agriculture.” It could also ‘contribute to environmental sustainability goals’, the report went on.
Diets rich in fruits and vegetables over ultra-processed diets rich in animal products would help support biodiversity, it added.
This report is not the first to link zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 to meat consumption.
It claims the diseases ‘are a predictable consequence of new and close contact between species caused by the expansion of agricultural land into natural ecosystems’.
This means that if we reduce animal farming, the risk of future pandemics could be considerably reduced.
COVID-19 implications have shown a vast fallout from new ‘interrelationships’ between humans and the current food system, the report concluded.
Redesigning the system
With a series of international summits planned for 2021, a ‘unique window’ is available to redesign the global food system.
As a result, the paper recommends the creation of global guidelines, including dietary change and a reduction in food waste.