UN recommends dietary shifts to address climate change

Research communities are moving from analysis to solution mode to address climate change, and food systems are increasingly being identified as in need of immediate and significant attention, including a recent recommendation from a UN taskforce which advises cutting animal and dairy consumption by half. 
December 22, 2023 Commentary
UN recommends dietary shifts to address climate change

From the Executive Director’s desk

Research communities are moving from analysis to solution mode to address climate change, and food systems are increasingly being identified as in need of immediate and significant attention, including a recent recommendation from a UN taskforce which advises cutting animal and dairy consumption by half. 

The Appetite for Change report produced by the UN’s Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen argues that progress has been slow in addressing nitrogen use efficiency using agricultural practices alone.

Meanwhile, the predominance of meat and dairy products in human diets is pushing the global nitrogen cycle out of its planetary safe operating space with detrimental effects on all life on Earth. A combination of dietary change and technical measures across the food chain can halve nitrogen waste (as the sum of all nitrogen losses) and contribute to reaching the targets set in UNEP’s Colombo Declaration, the EU Farm to Fork Strategy and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. 

Debate continues around the measurement and impact on global warming of methane versus carbon dioxide but has largely ignored the impact of reactive nitrogen. Unreactive nitrogen (N2) forms 78% of the Earth’s atmosphere and is benign. However, reactive nitrogen can be a harmful pollutant. Nitrous oxide (N2O)—a reactive nitrogen formed through activities such as agricultural practices, industrial processes, and combustion of fossil fuels—is a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.  

Professor Mark Sutton of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, co-chair of the Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen, and one of the editors of the Appetite for Change report, explains: “Action does not begin and end at the farm gate; it requires a holistic approach involving not only farmers but policymakers, retailers, water companies and individuals. It is also not saying we should all become vegan. Our analysis finds that a broad package of actions including a demitarian approach (halving meat and dairy consumption) scored most highly in looking to halve nitrogen waste by 2030.” 

Achieving the changes being recommended by such influential groups will be challenging. Nevertheless, the significance and importance of alternative proteins including plant-based meats, precision fermented dairy produce, and (ultimately) cultivated meat will increase. This presents an opportunity to supplement the efforts of farmers, and the agriculture sector, in reducing emissions of reactive nitrogen as, collectively, we all respond to the urgency of addressing climate change. 

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