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Is Our Global Consumption of Meat Harming the Planet?

As part of the Q&A session following his talk at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in California, Mark Tercek, President & CEO of The Nature Conservancy and Author of Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, was asked an interesting question. Journalist Marc Gunther, who moderated the evening, put to Tercek, ‘You are a vegan. You also lead the world’s largest conservation organisation. Why doesn’t The Nature Conservancy make changing people’s diets one of its strategies? Wouldn’t changes in diet lead to better environmental outcomes? And what about GMOs?’

Tercek explained that, among many reasons, he has been a vegetarian for a long time – and, more recently, a vegan – because he thinks our global consumption of meat is far too high. ‘Cattle, for example, need large areas of land – not just for pasture, but for growing their feed,’ he noted. ‘That footprint is primarily tropical, in the most bio-diverse areas of the globe. Globally, if current meat production were distributed per capita, everyone would have enough protein and we could freeze the footprint of production at current levels.’

However, Tercek commented that even though, given the facts, you might expect him to focus on changing what people eat in the interest of environmental wellness, he believes the answer is not quite so simple. Tercek outlined two “enormous” obstacles to a campaign to change global diets; no one wants to be told what they can and cannot eat, and rising global incomes predicts a trend toward improved nutrition, which may mean an increase in protein-rich diets.

According to Tercek, ‘Instead of trying to change this trend, I think we should focus on producing more meat from existing pasture and farmland. That means paying more attention to soil health, water conservation and agricultural extension, giving farmers the support they need to produce more and do it smartly.’ He added that, even though public funding is tight, governments need to step up and invest in solutions, and the private sector also has a part to play.

He continued, ‘Getting more from land already under cultivation is key. Nevertheless, some expansion of farming and grazing is inevitable. So another vital challenge is to channel that expansion to areas where it will do less harm. This process inevitably involves some trade-offs, but we have the science to identify where controlled expansion could take place with relatively fewer environmental impacts and costs.’ Tercek concluded, ‘Can changing your diet make a positive impact on the planet? Of course. But in my view, our biggest hope for widespread change lies in “greening” our meat, for those who choose to eat it.’

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This entry was posted on July 7, 2013 by and tagged , , .
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