Most of the climate literate population understands the basic link between industrial and vehicular emissions and global warming. However, little attention has been paid to the impact of our diet on climate change.

Today, we stand at a precarious position where even a marginal increase in global temperatures could prove to be catastrophic. At times like this, half measures are not sufficient to combat climate change. Hence, in addition to the war against fossil fuels, we must also control other major sources of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) such as livestock production.

Amidst all the contemporary debate over fossil fuels and clean energy, it seems that most of us are blissfully ignorant of the fact that the livestock industry contributes more towards GHG emissions than global vehicular emissions. Livestock is one of the largest industries in the world and contributes 14.5% to global GHG emissions. Yet, there is hardly any international call for action towards cutting down on meat and dairy consumption to mitigate climate change. In fact, advertisements and consumerism has somehow deluded us into thinking that animal based protein is the most vital component of our diet and must be consumed in large quantities just to stay healthy. Scientific studies have proven that animal based dietary components are not essential for human beings and all our dietary needs can be met through a purely plant based diet. Yet, global consumption of meat and dairy continues to escalate at a rapid rate as more and more people are deluded into believing that eating meat is crucial for our well-being. The idea that we are dependent on consuming livestock has been perpetuated by the large livestock corporations and lobbyists with deep pockets because our consumption of meat and dairy is directly related to their profits.

This vital issue has not even featured in the UNFCCC negotiations and has not been acknowledged by most countries. Some of the main environmental impacts associated with the livestock industry are the production of vast quantities of GHG, improper treatment of effluents and animal waste and the inefficient consumption and utilization of scarce land and water resources. A 2006 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) titled Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options has identified livestock as a major stressor on the planet and a leading cause for loss of biodiversity and anthropogenic GHG emissions.

At the present rate, it is predicted that by 2050, the environmental damage done single-handedly by the livestock industry will result in drastic and irreversible changes, which can nullify the positive effects of climate mitigation measures in other sectors. The livestock industry generates a mélange of GHG and is the main source of methane and nitrous oxide which are significantly more potent than carbon emissions and accelerate global warming and deplete the ozone layer.

Secondly, due to our exploding population, our food needs are continually increasing. In order to increase livestock production, more and more acres of forest land are being converted to agricultural land to feed and sustain the livestock. As a result, precious tropical rainforests are being converted into pastures where cattle feed is cultivated. “As our diets become more meat- and dairy-rich, the hidden climate cost of our food tends to mount up,” observes Prof. Dave Reay, a renowned climatologist from the University of Edinburgh.

Moreover, the improper treatment of livestock waste and effluents is one of the leading causes for water contamination in both developed and developing countries which poses significant health hazards.

From animal welfare to human health and sustainable development: A shift in agenda

Since the last five decades, the livestock industry has been under criticism from animal rights groups such as PETA who have campaigned against animal cruelty and advocated a vegan diet. Such campaigns have been largely unsuccessful as evidenced from the rapid escalation of the meat eating population across the world.

The interesting thing is that the focus of the campaign has now shifted from animal rights to environmental concerns, human rights and sustainability. In a world stressed by the adversities of climate change, an increasing population and resource depletion, it is clear that our dependency on livestock must reduce in order to tackle the challenge of global food security.

Currently, the global meat consumption levels are growing faster than the global population. This is not a sustainable option in the near future and evidence shows that the earth cannot sustain a population of 7 billion who are dependent on a livestock aggregating 70 billion. In some least developed nations and geographically remote regions facing severe climatic and topographic conditions, meat dependency is understandable from a survival and economic perspective. However, even developed countries with wealthy consumers continue to consume unhealthy levels of meat and dairy which is not only terrible from an ecological perspective, but also poses significant public health hazards such as increased cardiovascular diseases, cancer, obesity and a whole host of lifestyle related diseases.

Mitigation and adaptation measures need to work simultaneously

In order to adopt an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, we need to decrease our dependency on animal products and embrace a more plant based diet. Studies show that not only are plant based diets good for the environment, but they may also be a healthier option for human beings.

But reducing our dietary dependence on livestock is challenging, especially for poor countries where survival is often dependent on consumption of meat. Ironically, most of these economically weak, livestock dependent countries like Bangladesh are also climate vulnerable nations and are constantly battered by the vagaries of climate change. While all countries must strive to reduce their dependency on livestock consumption, the internationally recognized legal principle of common but differentiated responsibilities must be kept in mind. Hence, developing and least developed countries which are largely dependent on livestock for survival must develop adaptation strategies to minimize the carbon footprint of their diet. For instance, Indian agricultural scientists have been developing a cattle feed which significantly reduces belching among cows, which consequentially decreases the amount of methane released per cow. Such adaptation and mitigation strategies need to be encouraged at both local as well as international level while phasing out global meat and dairy consumption.

Climate change impacts our diet and health just as much as our diet and lifestyle impacts climate change. A scientific study published in the Nature Journal has revealed that staple food crops are becoming less nutritious due to climate change. "We found rising levels of CO2 are affecting human nutrition by reducing levels of very important nutrients in very important food crops," said Prof Samuel Myers, an environmental health expert at Harvard University, Boston and a member of the study group.

With the COP 23 around the corner, it is important for all of us to realize that anthropogenic climate change is caused primarily due to excessive amounts of GHG released as a result of human activities. While it is crucial to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy, it is also equally important to reduce other major sources of GHG emissions. Unless we as a collective species are able to design and implement a comprehensive climate mitigation and adaptation strategy which targets all major sources of GHG emissions and ensures environmental sustainability, we may well become part of the sixth extinction.

(The writer is a Fellow at Climate Tracker.)