A University of Edinburgh study has found that lower levels of meat consumption do not necessarily correlate to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
The study was conducted by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and modelled a specific grazing system, the Cerrado (Brazilian savannah).
It concluded that the Brazilian grasslands were able to store huge capacities of carbon due to its long roots. However, reducing meat demand would decrease the likelihood of grassland improvement, meaning less carbon would be retained in the soil which would leading to increasing carbon dioxide emissions.
The study, which was specific to the region, do not necessarily extrapolate to other regions.
The findings have been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
In a statement to The Student, Rafael Silva, a PhD student from the School of Mathematics involved with the study, explained the process in which demand variations influence how pasture is managed.
He told The Student: “Given that farmers typically want to maximize profit, lower demand would have the effect of lower quality grasses, with lower soil organic sequestration.
“Conversely, higher demand could lead to improved quality pastures through the restoration of degraded pasture areas, and this could boost soil organic carbon, reducing net emissions, despite any increased methane from higher animal numbers,” he continued.
The researchers have calculated that if beef productivity from now until 2030 rises by 30 per cent, net emissions would decrease by 10 per cent.
In contrast, a fall in demand by 30 per cent would result in a 9 per cent rise in emissions, if deforestation rates remain steady amidst the high demand. Despite this, if deforestation rates increase along with demand, emissions are predicted to increase by about 60 per cent.
Silva conveyed his hope that the study will show that the relationship between meat consumption and the environment is not as negative as it seems.
He said: “Concerned consumers should really know more about production systems before assuming they are all bad.”
Complicating the problem, according to Professor Dominic Moran of SRUC, is the fact that earlier evidence suggesting a link to emissions may have already shaped opinions against meat consumption.
“In some production regions, shifting to less meat-dependent diets would help curb climate change, but it is important to understand the nature of different production systems before concluding that reduced consumption will have the same effects in all systems,” Moran said in a statement to The Student.
Second year law student Rebecca Bergsmo, explained that she turned vegetarian last summer after reading about the link between livestock and emissions.
“I read a lot about the greenhouse gases generated from producing live stock (UN report), which turned out to be a lot worse than I ever thought,” she told The Student.
“This combined with deforestation done to create space for livestock were two strong factors that influenced my decision.
PhD researcher Silva remains optimistic of possibly targeting other aspects currently contributing to lowering carbon dioxide emissions besides altering meat production and demand.
“There are potential low cost emissions reductions available in a lot of sectors including transport (modal shift), household energy conservation and the development and use of renewable energy (e.g. wind and hydropower),” he told The Student.
“The key thing is for society (i.e. our government) to seek out the lowest cost ways of reducing each unit of emissions, which are also ways that are easy for people or companies to do. Some of these options may be much more attainable than trying to change meat consumption, though the latter is still possibly worthwhile for other reasons including health grounds.”
Image credit: Jose Roberto V Moraes