Achieving sustainable production and consumption is essential in the transformation towards a more sustainable society. The negative environmental, health, social and economic impacts of current western excessive meat production and consumption realities are irreconcilable with achieving this goal.
Australia has a relatively small population, yet has one of the world's highest per capita ecological footprints. It is also has one of the world's highest per capita meat consumption (along with developed countries such as USA, Luxemburg and New Zealand). Despite ample evidence of the harmful human and planetary effects of excessive meat consumption, governments and industries continue to support and promote this habit.
If sustainable development is to become a reality, this major obstacle, including the political and industrial duplicity that continues to perpetuate it, needs to be honestly tackled. There is abundant research evidence substantiating the destruction wrought by the livestock and related sectors, including pharmaceutical, health-oriented and government groups. Given the perfidy of vested interests, people are being deceived and encouraged to eat more meat. A growing danger to the global community looms with these dietary habits being exported to developing countries.
It is time for individuals to reclaim power through a personal policy decision to consume meat in moderation and in keeping with the health recommendations from reputable research and international bodies, such as the World Cancer Research Fund, the Oxford European Perspective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Study and Harvard School of Public Health. They all recommend no more than 500 g of red meat consumption per week.
In adopting an individual flexitarian policy, entailing substantial meat reduction, people are empowered to reclaim their personal and collective rights to better health and a more sustainable world.
This can be achieved through a range of incentives, such as:
One meat-free day a week: The city councils of Cape Town (South Africa), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Bremen (Germany), Mechelen, Ghent and Hasselt (Belgium) have officially endorsed one meat-free day a week. Schools and numerous public venues (canteens, cafeterias, hospitals, restaurants, public sporting facilities) support this in their menu selections. "Veggie street maps" promote venues that offer vegetarian and vegan choices.
Meat as a treat: Meat should be eaten on special occasions, only once per week or as a treat. This can be supported by labelling; for example, packaged meat could carry messages such as: "enjoy responsibly", "enjoying your meat treat as part of a balanced diet", be meat-wise or for the sake of your health and the health of the planet, please enjoy in moderation.
Nutritional recommendations: these could be made independently from industry interests, e.g. Harvard?s Healthy Eating Plate. Educational information on maximum safe consumption levels could be offered on the back of packaged meat products.
Private health insurance incentives: Like car or household insurance bonuses or incentives geared towards attracting those less likely to make claims, health funds could offer a range of bonuses to those who consume les meat. This will send powerful messages to the community and support a transition towards flexitarianism.
Support for alternatives: Financial incentives, such as tax concessions, could be given to industries promoting meat substitutes and plant-based alternatives.
Educational initiatives: Public education campaigns (similar to anti-cancer or anti-smoking campaigns) can be run on the dangers of excessive meat consumption. There are already active individuals (e.g. Rajendra Pachuria, Paul McCartney, Tim Lang, Al Gore) whose efforts are aligning with other initiatives, such as UK's Meat Reducers program.
Internalising the externalities: The price of meat should reflect its true production costs, subsidies for livestock industries should be phased out and a meat tax could address current environmental and social production and consumption impacts.
Industry incentives: Support for businesses that replace meat products with nutritional alternatives and meat analogues (as recommended by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, authors of the widely cited article Livestock and Climate Change, published by the Worldwatch Institute).
The policy is proposed for all Western countries and could be implemented with an immediate effect and benefit.
A brief summary as to how flexitarianism contributes to a green economy follows (based on Australia's Rio+20 national submission):
Blue Economy and Oceans Issues
Livestock is a primary contributor to salt and freshwater pollution all over the world. Indirectly by being the primary contributor to climate change, the sector is also principally responsible for the acidification of the global oceans.
According to FAO, we currently produce enough grain to feed the world's population now and into the foreseeable future. However, food animals now detract far more from the total global food supply than they provide. Western countries feed grains to meat animals instead of feeding people which is an inefficient way of producing calories and compromises global food security. Over one third of globally produced cereals are used to feed livestock leaving nearly a billion humans to suffer in hunger. If the grain currently used to feed livestock were reallocated to people, there could be an immediate end to world hunger and food security into the foreseeable future without any additional ecological resource requirements.
Water Use Efficiency: growing more food with less water
It is estimated that producing one kilogram of animal protein needs 100 times more water than producing one kilogram of grain protein for human consumption. Consuming meat is an inefficient use of an increasingly scare environmental resource without which life cannot continue.
Considering both direct and indirect effects, food animals are leading causes for deforestation, land degradation and desertification.
No matter how many renewable energy alternatives are developed and adopted, the timeframes required for global implementation and resulting beneficial outcomes are too long to make a significant and urgent contribution to sustainable development. Whilst such progress is necessary, reducing meat consumption is a much more immediate and effective solution.
Sustainable Industry Practices
The livestock and related sectors should be made accountable for their impacts. This information should be made transparent to the public together with adoption of mitigating measures, corporate social responsibility and more sustainable practices.
Innovation, Research and Collaboration
Research and innovation should not focus on intensification of meat production but rather on development of plant-based alternatives ensuring economic, social, environmental and human health benefits.
Indirect benefit of that would be healing the disconnect and increasing
The current livestock industry practices require society's indifference, desensitization, denial and disassociation with food production and humane and ethical consumption. This requires lack of compassion that inevitably results in deterioration of social and moral fabric.
Climate change looms as one of the biggest environmental crises in human history and the lifecycle and supply chain of livestock products is the largest contributor of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions worldwide.
A 2010 Canadian Study warns of a livestock greenhouse gas boom where soaring international production of livestock could, by 2050, release enough carbon into the atmosphere to single-handedly exceed safe levels of climate change: the livestock sector's emissions alone, if continuing on the current demand, supply trajectory, could send temperatures above the 2 degrees Celsius rise optimistically said to be the threshold above which climate change will be dangerously destabilising.
Yet estimates show that a 25% reduction in global consumption of livestock products worldwide would yield the 12.5% reduction in global anthropogenic GHG emissions that delegates tried, but failed, to negotiate in 2009 at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen.
Finance for Sustainable Development
Alternatives to meat production should be financially supported and incentivised, as this will substantially decrease the cost of climate change mitigation.
Financially, a low-meat or completely meatless diet will reduce monetary costs of climate change mitigation by 2050 by between 70% and more than 80%.
Measuring Sustainability and Environmental Accounting
The heavy social and ecological footprint of the livestock sector should not be ignored or exempt from financial taxes and its externalities should be reflected in its true pricing.
Sustainable Development Goals
Whilst life expectancies in the western world are higher, this is the result of many development related factors, such as improvements in living conditions, advances in public health and medical technologies, access to medical and healthcare, education, economic resources, high childbirth and childhood diseases survival rates. However, despite the prolonged western life span, about 80 percent of elderly people (over age 65) suffer from at least one chronic disease and about 50 percent suffer from two or more chronic diseases. One of the main reasons for this is that the West is significantly exceeding the recommended healthy levels of meat consumption.
Further this habit is being exported to the developing world with the result that non-communicable nutrition-related diseases (such as obesity, cancer, diabetes 2 and hypertension) have overtaking communicable diseases (such as HIV/AIDS). There is no point in replacing diseases of poverty with diseases of affluence.
Antibiotics, growth hormones and genetic modifications have become the basis for industrial livestock production. Despite calls by the world's medical community to cease the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, over half of all antibiotics produced worldwide are now administered non-therapeutically to meat-animals (in the US this figure is 90%). The consequences for humanity are ominous and include a global epidemic of antibiotic resistant infections.
Further, the breeding of genetically modified and uniform, sickness-prone, antibiotic maintained animals in factory farms promotes growth and mutation of pathogens creating perfect environments for rapid selection and amplification of pathogens and an increasing risk for disease entrance and/or dissemination. By contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistant infections, the increase of infectious, chronic and new diseases, mass production and overconsumption of meat now constitutes one of the single greatest threats to public health.
Market Mechanisms and Price Signals
Cheap meat is an impediment to sustainable development and poverty alleviation. Current market mechanisms are being distorted through vast agricultural subsidies which, together with marketing techniques, is deceiving consumers.
As it stands, while there is 63 billion grain eating livestock, overpopulation should not be blamed for global undernutrition, hunger or environmental problems. Concerns regarding dependency, distribution and corruption are justified, but in a world with increasingly stressed ecosystems, a rapidly growing human population and political unrest caused by high and distorted food prices, resulting in more grain being fed to livestock than people, it is difficult to morally justify this profligate use of edible nutrition and the argument for reduced meat consumption becomes ever more lucid.
Empowering Women to achieve Sustainable Development
Women are mainly responsible for shopping and preparing meals at home and making food and menu choices for their children and husbands. For the direct wellbeing of their families and the planet, they should be informed and empowered to make better food choices focused on healthier plant-based options.
Education and Training: Empowering Youth
Through the influence of their mothers and other educational and health organisations, youth should be empowered to reject the lure of fast food and other meat-based options.
Communications and Information Technology
Social media and ICT should be used to communicate healthy diets and combat meat dependence.
Evidence for the above claims is available on request.