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Meat taxes are one way KTH researcher Annika Carlsson Kanyama suggests to reduce consumption. (Photo: Issei Kato/TT)

Changing meat "norms" will require political decisions

Published Dec 16, 2015

Study after study shows that our consumption of meat is hard on the environment. But habits are hard to shake. What is needed is political leadership, according to food scientists at KTH.

Annika Carlsson Kanyama has researched the relationship between diet and greenhouse gas emissions since the mid-1990s. During the same time period, the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change began issuing reports that suggested that human beings’ way of life was not consistent with a sustainable future.

Today, according to Carlsson Kanyama, no serious scientist doubts the negative effects of meat production. Global livestock produces as much greenhouse emissions as cars, planes, boats and other vehicles transports combined.

Annika Carlsson Kanyama

It also creates 30 times more emissions than vegetarian protein-rich alternatives to meat and other animal products. Beef is the worst for climate; on the other hand, poultry is climate smart. Even fish do well in comparison, depending on how the fish is distributed.

“That's how it is. There is not much more to count, for a climate scientist. The research on this point is conclusive. Now is the time to decide if we should do something or not.

“So far, society has put the responsibility on the individual to live healthily and adopt climate smart eating habits. That policy has not seen instruments as an alternative to achieve change. It is a pity, because with political effort it should be possible to significantly reduce emissions here and now.”

Carlsson Kanyama has successfully driven change management, and participated in debates and television programs to influence opinion about the "meat norm". Her commitment, together with her research, has earned her a place on Sweden’s list of eco-influencers.

"Remarkably, we are lagging behind in Sweden,” she says.

Based on her research on specific meal emissions, she gave tips and advice for Swedish households. Among other things, she supported the country’s Meatless Monday campaign.

“I have helped to put livestock on the climate map in Sweden. However, there has not been any impact on the higher decision-making level - where we have not arrived yet.”

Even though statistics show that meat consumption is leveling off and more people eat vegetarian food, Carlsson Kanyama is skeptical about whether that data reveals a trend.

“Maybe it’s nothing more than some surface ripples. It also depends on what perspective you have. In Stockholm, there is a lot of demand for vegetarian food, but it might not be the case elsewhere.”

Carlsson Kanyama want to see a major reduction in meat eating and the consumption of dairy products. Perhaps we need to refrain entirely from pork and beef to meet climate targets, she says.

Options for protein have long been available through legumes and soy-based foods. Gaining ground are also algae and insects, which are a relatively new product on the menu.

Carlsson Kanyama says there is a need to investigate which will work best to reduce meat eating — laws, food labeling, meat tax and meat rationing are among the possibilities.

“The same way we tax fuel, alcohol and tobacco and other consumption, should be able to tax meat. Initially, it will surely arouse opposition, but in the longer term I think you will see an acceptance.

She advocates changes that have a positive connotation to promote climate friendly consumption.

“It should be easy to do right. Both the selling and serving of food need to make it easier for consumers to choose vegetarian options. The products should be in a central location in the shops and stand at the top of the menu. Why not make vegetarian meals the default options in restaurants? It is a step away from meat norm.

Christer Gummeson

More in this series:

​Growing genetically-modified food is a "moral obligation"

What causes the meat production emissions?

The vast majority — 80 per cent — of greenhouse gas emissions ­ come from agriculture, for example, animal feed, or breeding. When soil is cultivated it releases nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. Ruminant animals, such as sheep and cows, emit methane, another potent greenhouse gas. Fuel for farm machinery releases exhaust gases. Transport and packaging account for a smaller proportion of emissions.

Differences in emissions of various types of meat depend on how much feed is required to produce a certain amount of meat, and different species have varying efficiency at converting feed to meat. Beef is the worst for climate, producing 26 kg of carbon dioxide per kilogram of pure meat. Lamb produces 21 kg, pork 6 kg, and poultry 3 kg. Dairy products also have high emissions because they come from ruminant animals.

Meat production's negative impact on the environment has another dimension: it requires large areas of land, which is a limited resource.

Meat consumption share of greenhouse gas emissions.

Livestock production accounts for 14.5 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases, according to the latest statistics from the UN body FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization.

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Last changed: Dec 16, 2015