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Green Is The New Black

OPINION: Why (Climate) Change Is The Only Constant For Our Diets

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As the global population continues to increase, the question of how sustainable our agricultural practices are can no longer be ignored. Here, the team from Green Monday talk food security, why we need to move away from a meat-centric diet, and how rising temperatures will radically reduce food availability.

“The climate crisis is well and truly upon us – in the past year alone, we’ve seen climate disasters unfolding one after another in quick succession: from the blistering European summer heat-wave (where France suffered a record-breaking temperature of 45.9°C) to the record-low sea ice levels in the Arctic, as well as the fires raging in the Amazon and Australia. There has been a lot of talk about clean energy and low-waste living to combat this dire situation. Still, little attention has been paid to the way we eat, particularly when the livestock industry alone is responsible for 14.5% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Make no mistake – the meat we put on our plate is partly to blame for the grim state of the planet. 

But why?

With the climate crisis sending us SOS messages loud and clear, more significant questions loom on the horizon– how will we feed a whopping 10 billion mouths by 2050? The sustainability of our agricultural practices and by extension, our meat-centric diet, must be called into question. To meet the overwhelming demand for meat, large areas of carbon-dioxide-absorbing forest must be cleared to make way for farms and livestock. The livestock themselves also compound the issue of climate crisis through their burps and farts, which release methane, a greenhouse gas more than 30 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. 

Our relationship with meat in Singapore

The average Singaporean consumes 55kg of meat per year and pork, not beef, has the highest energy consumption per kg. Due to high demand and the fact that our pork arrives via long-haul flights from far-off countries like Brazil and the Netherlands, our favourite char siu rice and xiao long bao now accounts for 28% of food-related emissions

Aside from the immense carbon footprint created, livestock also contributes heavily to biodiversity loss. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation has identified the industry as “one of the major drivers of habitat change’, with 13 billion hectares of forested area– roughly the equivalent of 13 Chinas being converted for the purposes of livestock and feedstock production.

This should concern us more, given that biodiversity loss has much more far-reaching impacts on humankind than we initially thought. Not only is Mother Nature the very genesis of our food and nutrition, but it also serves as a source of economic wealth and livelihood for many, in addition to providing us with medical and pharmacological discoveries. The United Nations reported last May that 70% of our cancer drugs are either natural or synthetic products inspired by nature, and the loss of species could limit the discovery of potential treatments for diseases and pertinent health issues. 

It does not help that our food system is fundamentally inefficient. Livestock, in particular cattle, has a staggeringly low energy-conversion (feed-to-food) efficiency rate; only a miserable three per cent of the calories they consume is converted into edible bodyweight. And when it comes to land usage efficiency, livestock once again pales in comparison to edible crops: a third of total cropland is dedicated to feedstock; and the Washington-based think tank World Resources Institute reports that beef requires about 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gases per gram of edible animal protein than typical plant proteins, such as beans, peas and lentils.

The importance of food security

To put it simply, we are eating our way to the grave while dragging the planet with us. The climate crisis we have created only spells further trouble for us by threatening our food security– begging the question of whether we will have enough food down the road if we continue to maintain a meat-heavy diet. 

Our food supply is predicted to become increasingly unstable with extreme weather wreaking havoc on our food systems. In addition, the rising temperatures would radically reduce food availability. According to a paper jointly published by Battisti and Naylor, the basic rule for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for roughly every degree of warming, yields decline by an astounding 10%

This would have drastic repercussions for import-reliant countries such as Singapore, where we import more than 90% of our food and are thus highly vulnerable to any impact on the food supply. Having acknowledged our precarious situation, our government has accordingly announced a ’30 by 30′ plan: a lofty goal of producing 30% of our nutritional needs locally by 2030. 

Yet, it remains more crucial for individuals to challenge the status quo of our diet– do we need so much meat? Can we not just cut down on animal proteins for our future and generations to come? After all, change is the only constant, and it is long overdue for the way we farm and eat.”

Contributed by Green Monday

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