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The UN Needs to Tell Everyone to Eat Less Meat

Climate change and antibiotic resistance are two hot topics, but we’re overlooking a simple solution.
September 21, 2016, 6:25pm

You may have missed it amid all the reports of Brad and Angelina's divorce, but the United Nations opened its General Assembly session this week to discuss major global issues such as climate change and antibiotic resistance.

But they really should be talking about bacon.

The link between our food systems and many of the high-level issues being discussed at the UN this week is significant. From the greenhouse gas emissions to the overuse of medically-important antibiotics, the way we raise our animals for meat is a major contributor. Most experts agree that some small changes to what we eat, such as cutting down on meat, could have a huge impact on solving these problems. In fact, a study in 2009 calculated that a global shift to a low meat diet could cut the costs needed to achieve our greenhouse gas goals by 50 percent. But how do we do that on a large scale, in a way that people don't hate?


China—where meat consumption has risen dramatically over the last decade—released a plan earlier this year to reduce the country's meat consumption by 50 percent. It's mostly based on changing the dietary guidelines issued by the government and launching an ad campaign (featuring, for some reason, Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron) to encourage people to cut back on meat. It's way too early to tell if this strategy will be effective, but at least China is staying woke to the fact that we need to start rearranging our dinner plates.

"We don't need to wait for technological breakthroughs."

But at the UN, even as delegates acknowledged the role of agriculture on antibiotic resistance Wednesday, there was no mention of the simplest, most obvious solution: getting everyone to cool it on the hamburgers a couple of times a week.

"The whole green energy movement and developing technologies and getting governments on board, sure, doing those sorts of things is fine," said Sonia Faruqi, a former investment banker and the author of Project Animal Farm, which explores sustainable solutions for farming.

"But it's also relatively simple. We don't need to wait for technological breakthroughs or innovation. We just need to think about what's on our plate that doesn't need to be there."

When it comes to antibiotic resistance, the overuse of antimicrobials in agriculture—used both to fatten up animals and to prevent disease—is a major contributor to the development of resistant bacteria. In the US, between 70 and 80 percent of all antibiotics sold each year are sold to farmers.

Some examples of how antibiotic resistance emerges Image: Centers for Disease Control

With climate change, the effects are even more apparent. Some researchers have declared animal agriculture the leading cause of climate change, but even those who question that claim recognize that raising livestock contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. The UN's own Food and Agricultural Organization estimates livestock produce 14.5 percent of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. It also uses a lot more water than crop agriculture and contributes to deforestation.

As global diets shift to a more westernized cuisine, expecting everyone on the planet to give up meat, eggs and dairy entirely isn't realistic (or, from a food security perspective, necessarily the best option). But reducing our meat consumption feels a little more doable.


Read More: New US Dietary Guidelines: Hey Dudes, Eat Less Meat!

If there was widespread understanding that curbing meat consumption could help us fight climate change and prevent antibiotic resistant superbugs, the public might just get on board. Studies have shown that, when it comes to climate change at least, people are more likely to shift behaviors if they have a good understanding of the adverse effects of not changing their current practices.

And we've already seen that, in a small way, with the gradual reduction of red meat consumption in the US as we've gained better understanding about nutrition. But a study published earlier this year showed that only six percent of Americans even knew there is a link between eating meat and climate change.

The truth is cutting back on bacon alone won't fix everything, but it's a simple, viable strategy to add to our toolbox that the UN is largely ignoring. Maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger should drop by the general assembly.

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