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Opinion: Irish people must reduce meat and dairy consumption and production to tackle emissions

Ireland is the third worst country in the EU for tackling climate change.

Extinction Rebellion protesters outside the Dáil earlier this year.
Extinction Rebellion protesters outside the Dáil earlier this year.

THE CLIMATE CHANGE Performance Index 2019 might yet prove to be a watershed moment in the campaign to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. 

Its publication, along with the civil protest movement led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, has caught the attention of the public, many of whom responded by voting for green parties in the recent European Elections.

The green wave that surged across Europe has left established political parties scrambling to highlight their environmental credentials.

After the election, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke about how the public wanted the government to “act faster” on tackling climate change amid speculation that the Green Party could potentially hold the balance of power after the next general election. 

However, behind the rhetoric and political manoeuvering lies a monumental task, the scale of which has been heightened by the limited action that has been undertaken thus far. 

Already ranked as the worst country in the European Union on climate action, Ireland has little chance of meeting its 2020 or even 2030 emissions targets.

Ireland had the third highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per capita in the EU in 2017. This position has been compounded by the country’s inefficient consumption and production behaviours, which were ranked the lowest in the EU during 2017.

If Ireland is to stand any chance of substantially reducing emissions, a complete change in consumption and production behaviour will be required. Working toward responsible consumption and production (goal 12 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals), will be central to that shift. 

However, with a Sustainable Development Goal 12 (SDG12) score that ranks among the bottom five EU nations, this is another area where Ireland lags behind other countries.

Consequently, if we are to meet our internationally agreed obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet SDG12, we will need to completely alter how we both produce and consume food.

Customers driving demand

To date, much of the discourse around this issue has centred on the production side of the debate.

Time and again, we have heard how the agricultural industry accounts for one-third of Ireland’s GHG emissions, without much consideration for the consumer’s indirect contribution to those figures.

The agricultural industry has found itself under scrutiny, but consumers have been very slow to change their behaviour.

Although there has been an upsurge in the number of people embracing vegetarian or vegan options, at least on a limited basis through campaigns such as meat free Mondays, global demand for meat and dairy products is expected to rise by 76% by 2050. 

We are already seeing the consequences of this in Brazil, where president Jair Bolsonaro has loosened environmental regulations to allow farmers to engage in deforestation in order to increase agricultural production.

Consumers are driving much of this demand and a lot of the product is going to waste. 

Between 25-30% of all food produced globally is either lost or wasted, according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change report.

This comes at a time when two billion adults are classified as being obese or overweight, and 820 million people go to bed hungry.

Our insatiable appetite for meat has created a situation where a third of the world’s agricultural land is used to grow feed for livestock – not humans.

In other words, we are destroying forests and ecosystems that can capture carbon and replacing them with crops used exclusively to support a meat industry that produces carbon.

This juxtaposition has created a situation where the world’s top three meat companies, JBS, Cargill and Tyson, emitted more greenhouse gases than all of France, and nearly as much as some of the biggest oil companies like Exxon, BP and Shell.

When it comes to agricultural emissions, we are effectively burning the candle at both ends.

For some, the solution lies in producing lab cultured so-called clean meat to curb the impact of the industry’s Co2 emissions and to meet the demand of the globe’s growing population.

However, such solutions ignore the lessons learned from the green revolution that gave birth to genetically modified organisms in the 1970s. Even today, people are hesitant to knowingly purchase or engage with genetically modified foods due to the lack of research on their long-term impacts.

Although there is a great deal of promising research being undertaken that could potentially lower the amount of methane produced by farm animals, either by adapting their diets or genetic make-up, it is not yet clear how much of an impact those projects would have in arresting agricultural GHG emissions. 

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In any event, even if the agricultural industry became carbon neutral, we would still be left with the issue of over production and waste, which is hardly ethical.

Global meat companies would continue behaving the same way, prioritising production over all other considerations.

This is the case in Ireland, where programmes like Food Wise 2025 were developed to assist the agricultural sector in increasing its primary production by 65%.

Such growth strategies are completely incompatible with the ambitious carbon reduction targets laid out in the government’s own Climate Action Plan.

As tempting as it might be for us to exclusively denigrate climate strategies and multinational meat producers, doing so ignores the fact that we in Ireland waste one third of the food we purchase.

If we are serious about cutting emissions, we must consider the environmental impact of the food we purchase. We must realise that everything has a carbon cost, particularly if the land used to produce our food was cleared to make way for agriculture.

We need to stop treating production and consumption in isolation, but rather see them as having a symbiotic relationship which we can influence as individuals.

Our collective future lies in sustainable production and consumption: treating them in isolation will, in part, hasten the effects of climate change.

Disrupting the current patterns of production without dealing with problems associated with our rates of consumption, is like projecting two parallel lines that will never meet on a graph.

There needs to be a deliberate focus on changing the norms, attitudes, cultures and values surrounding our consumption pattern, which, in turn, will lead to sustainable production and consumption.

Dr Stephen Onakuse is a member of the faculty at Cork University Business School. He is currently working on a project designed to understand the social norms or behavioural characteristics toward responsible production and consumption in Ireland. 


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