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Give up meat completely or become a 'flexitarian' to save the planet, say experts

Eating less meat could help mitigate the environmental pressures of global food production and allow the planet to better support a rapidly growing population, scientists have concluded.

In 2010, the global food system emitted the equivalent of 5.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane and nitrous oxide.

But with the world’s population set to hit 10 billion by 2050, the environmental costs of the food system could rise by as much as 90 per cent over the next two decades.

This would exceed so called ‘planetary boundaries’ - the level at which human action could make the Earth’s ecosystem unstable - according to a report published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"Without concerted action, we found that the environmental impacts of the food system could increase by 50 to 90% by 2050 as a result of population growth and the rise of diets high in fats, sugars and meat,” said Dr Marco Springmann, from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford.

The study analysed several options which could reduce the environmental damage caused by the international food system, and found that adopting ‘flexitarian’ diets - often called 'casual vegetarianism' - could cut global greenhouse gas emissions by more than half.
Farming meat is a huge source of greenhouse gas: for every kilogram of lamb, 33.06kg of carbon dioxide is emitted, with one kg of beef producing 32.49kg of CO2. In comparison, vegetables produce just 0.06 kg of CO2 per kg of produce.

A shift away from meat-centric diets would also reduce use of cropland, freshwater and fertiliser by as much as 25 per cent.

But other changes are also necessary to feed 10 billion people sustainably.

Halving global food waste and improving farming practices are also required, said the study - which follows a UN warning on Monday that the Earth’s surface temperature could rise by as much as 1.5 degrees Celcius by 2030.

“It’s really only if we combine three different measures - dietary changes, reducing food waste and improving farming technologies - that we can stay within a safe planetary boundary," Dr Springmann said.
Increasing agricultural yield from existing cropland, balancing the application and recycling of fertilisers and improved water management is required could also halve the environmental impact of food production.

“Many options are being implemented and tested, but we need more proactive governments to really relate actions across the whole food system,” said Dr Springmann.

“Once you exceed planetary boundaries you’re in what we call a 'zone of uncertainty', and it’s likely there would be a slow descent into environmental disaster. We don’t know what would happen, but we do know that we want to avoid it.”

He added: “It really is up to government, businesses and private citizens to consider what they can change - whether it’s your diet or business practices.”