Could plant-based foods promote climate change?

Opposition to suggestions that the world should stop eating meat and switch to plant-based foods was expressed by Theo de Jager, former president of the World Farmers’ Organisation and a delegate to the recent COP 27 climate change conference in Egypt.

De Jager told Farmer’s Weekly that COP 27 had heard calls for the world’s now 8 billion people to move to plant-based foods because of the contribution of livestock farming to climate change.

He said this would be devastating for South African agriculture, because large parts of the country were only suited to livestock production, and this was also true for about one-third of the world’s arable land.

He added that converting to a plant-based diet was not the solution, as it would drive up deforestation and water usage.

The carbon footprint of making and sustaining this switch could result in even higher carbon emissions than those emitted by livestock, due to all the inputs required to produce these crops, and the cost of transporting these commodities to parts of the world that were unsuitable for their production, according to De Jager.

The origin of food products was, however, important. De Jager quoted a recent study, which found that the carbon footprint of exporting meat from New Zealand to the UK, for example, was lower than that of meat produced in the UK.

The reason for this was that New Zealand had a free-range farming system, whereas most of the animal feed used in the UK had to be imported, which was further exacerbated by that country’s heavy dependence on carbon-based heating systems.

“We would like to see the introduction of livestock carbon taxes to reward countries such as South Africa and New Zealand for making use of free-range and regenerative farming practices, and to ‘penalise’ countries that are unsuitable for livestock production,” he said.

Food for thought?

Above: At the United Nations Climate Change Conference  Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh. Photo: UNCC.