Page 2055 of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 3 report (what a mouthful!) contains a remarkable statement:
Clark et al. (2020) showed that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, food system emissions alone would jeopardize the achievement of the 1.5 degree C target and threaten the 2 degree C target. (page 74 of Chapter 12)
Note the word "immediately". Does anybody think that likely?
The statement tells all those people, including even the Australian Greens (who think that electric cars, solar panels, wind farms and batteries can solve the climate crisis), to think again. Anybody who thinks its enough to tackle big coal, big gas and big oil while ignoring big cattle is simply wrong.
But perhaps this is just one study? An outlier?
Maybe it's garbage and just slipped into the IPCC report and past the 50 or so chapter authors by mistake? Not likely. It's consistent with many other studies mentioned in the report.
And it's not even new science.
The first time I saw this in a peer reviewed journal was in a paper back in 2010. But the 2010 paper was a little less filtered by the polite constraints of IPCC reports. The term "food systems" is so abstract. WTF does that mean? Perhaps it's your blender? Your fridge? The global cold chain?
The 2010 paper named the actual component which is the problem; because it isn't the entire food system. Most of the food system is quite low in emissions.
The title of the 2010 paper says it all; "Forecasting potential global environmental
costs of livestock production 2000–2050". The operative word is "livestock". It's an objectionable term; a bit like calling women glamourstock. But we all know what it means, it's all animals farmed for food, drink and fibre; with the overwhelmingly dominant component being cattle and sheep.
Here's an image from that 2010 paper which shows the problems. It isn't just one problem, but a trio: greenhouse gas emissions, biomass appropriation and nitrogen mobilisation. The 2nd and 3rd are biodiversity issues and I'll ignore them here. The little red arrow points to emissions from livestock under 4 scenarios; "Livestock" (meaning with predicted growth rates under business as usual conditions), "Substitution" switching from ruminants (sheep and cattle) to chickens, and "Soy Protein" switching to soy (but it would be similar switching to any plant protein sources).
Fast forward to 2022 and broadly similar results are endorsed by the IPCC but dressed up in politically correct language, talking about "food systems". Although, to be fair, the WG3 report does make it clear that livestock is the issue, it's just that the language is incredibly verbose and abstract.
Here's a graph from the WG3 report showing the emissions from various foods for every 100 grams of protein.
Think about it. 45 kg of carbon dioxide for every 100g of beef protein.
Have you bought a bag of concrete lately? Most weigh 20 kilograms. So stick one under each arm (try it!) and you will get a feel for approximately the weight of CO2 you generate every time you have 100 grams of cattle meat protein ... that's about 400 grams of beef mince.
Perhaps if butchers packaged up the 45 kg of CO2 for you to take home and dispose of every time you bought 400 grams of beef, you'd soon change your eating habits.
Look at peas and pulses and even grains. What's the asterisk for? It's to a note that says the grains supply 41 percent of the planet's protein. The idea that you need to eat "protein foods" is actually rubbish. Eat enough food to satisfy your calorie needs and you get enough protein. That's been true for millenia; but unfortunately not since the advent of coca-cola and donuts and other such vacuous non-foods.
Note also that that graph, even though it does a good job at highlighting the disparities, is actually understating the emissions from red meat because it uses a metric that is simple and convenient rather than one which accurately reflects the warming impact of red meat production (if you want the details, have a look here).
CSIRO's climate crushing diet
Finally we get to the CSIRO!
Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has iconic status in Australia. It's done and is doing some remarkable science in many fields over a long period of time. So it will surprise overseas readers and anybody who has been living under a rock in Australia to know that the organisation has been officially pushing red meat for the past 17 years; in defiance of the climate science. It's also been recommending levels of protein in excess of the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
The Total Wellbeing Diet has all the branding and support of an official CSIRO product. It is purportedly based on original research published back in 2005 in which 100 women were randomly assigned to either a low calorie high red meat diet or a low calorie high carbohydrate diet. The high red meat diet included 1.4 kgs of lean red meat per week, plus some fish and chicken. Follow that for a year and your personal food carbon footprint would be over 8 tonnes of CO2 (1.4*52*0.25/100*45). If you want to screw the planet even quicker than we are currently doing, then this is the diet for you!
Unfortunately, the people on the meat diet lost exactly the same amount of weight as the
people on the other diet. Here's the quote from the paper linked above:
Weight loss was 7.3 +/- 0.3 kg with both diets.
Undeterred, the CSIRO launched a diet claiming otherwise; they misrepresented the results of their research and claimed that their high protein diet gave a weight loss edge. Their 2005 book became the most successful diet book in Australia, selling over a million copies and spawning a dynasty of diet books and plans.
It told people what they wanted to hear. Meat was good and if anybody told you different you could just mumble "CSIRO" and tell them to bugger off.
Meanwhile, obesity in Australia just kept going up.
Fast forward to 2022. CSIRO still hasn't got the message about meat and the climate.
CSIRO are still acting like climate change is unconnected to your diet. You won't find any mention of climate impacts on the Total Wellbeing Diet website. The diet has always been big on fish ... in addition to red meat. In 2019/20 some 62% of fish eaten in Australia was imported. But, as with climate change, you won't find any concern for the impacts of fishing on the oceans; or the impacts of aquaculture on its environment. You won't find any information of the deforestation impacts of the cattle industry in Queensland. You won't find any information about the impact of the cattle industry on the Great Barrier Reef. CSIRO is an organisation with no moral compass.
You will find a footnote on that 2005 research paper ... "Supported by a Medical Research grant from Meat and Livestock Australia." Fancy that. The MLA must have thought they'd died and gone to heaven to have CSIRO as a major marketing arm. Decades of propaganda by MLA, ably assisted now by CSIRO, has made the meat industry in Australia untouchable. No major political party in Australia has a climate policy that includes any kind of dietary shift. Do the Greens mention meat in the 2022 Climate platform? No.
The meat industry makes big coal look amateurish when it comes to marketing; and their influence is global. We can't fix the climate without tackling big meat and in Australia, we need to start by putting a broom through the CSIRO and getting rid of anybody who has missed the past 20 years worth of research on the impacts of the meat industry on the climate.