UN Calls for a Shift in Dietary Patterns towards Meat and Dairy-less Products

April 16, 2018

Advocating a shift in dietary patterns away from animal products, a report published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has been drawing attention in the post 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Categorising products and materials involved in economic activities in terms of their environmental impact, the report identifies the areas that need to be addressed in order to ensure global consumption and production levels are sustainable. As per the report, agricultural production, meat and dairy production industry in particular, accounts for a staggering 70% of the global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use, and 14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, thereby making livestock supply chains one of the most significant contributors to climate change.

(C) Creative Commons

Contribution to Climate Change

As depicted in figure 1, studies have identified that meat from ruminant animals such as cows, goats and sheep, tends to be more emission-intensive with beef and cattle milk production accounting for 41 and 20 percent of the sector’s emissions, respectively. Monogastric animal product such as pig meat and poultry and eggs contribute respectively 9 percent and 8 percent to the sector’s emissions.

Cause for Worry

The UNEP report further states: “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth, increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products”.

As the report highlights, with the population growth, particularly in the developing countries, the transition towards protein rich produce such as meat and dairy are unsustainable in terms of its economical and environmental impact. Escalating demand for animal protein invariably burdens the scale of the livestock industries worldwide and affects the farming capacities and technologies, with more commercialised practices being adopted which inevitably tends to overlooks the welfare of animals. In addition, the projected growth in this sector will undoubtedly result in higher emission volumes in the future, with implications on overuse of land, loss of habitats and species extinction. Moreover, the over-consumption of meat and dairy produce is unsustainable not only in terms of its impact on the environment but also on our health with increased risk of obesity and non-communicable diseases.

Change in Lifestyle

In a different perspective, each and every one of us contributes to climate change through their dietary GHG emissions. Studies indicate that an average 2,000 kcal high meat diet had 2.5 times as many GHG emissions than an average 2,000 kcal vegan diet. In other words, dietary emissions of meat-eaters were approximately twice as high as those of vegetarians and vegans. As pointed out by studies, dietary change connoting reduced consumption of meat and dairy produce could have long standing implication on filling the post-Paris emissions gap as “global adoption of a healthy diet would see a yearly emissions saving of 6 GtCO2e in 2050”.

The need for a shift in dietary patterns towards meat and dairy free diets is therefore recognised as an urgent one. As a recommendation for a more economically and ecologically conscious alternative, the UNEP report emphasised on the merits of a vegetarian diet whereby the proportions of the meat industry can be altered to suit sustainable trends of consumption and production. This would not only ensure healthy living but also would help fulfil the individual and collective responsibility in contributing to the reduction of the carbon footprint. Further, the rescaling of meat industry would lead to more sustainable patterns of livestock production which incorporates humane farming practices that would ensure the welfare of animals.

Sri Lanka’s NDCs and the Livestock Sector

Alongside the UNEP, several other organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, has also recognised that there is a direct link between intensity of GHG emission and the efficiency of producers using natural resources in livestock agriculture. Therefore, emissions reductions are should focus on addressing the supply-side inefficiencies with regard to the technologies and practices used in animal agriculture. The relevance to Sri Lanka of these facts lies on the basis that the FAO has identified South Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa as having major mitigation potential since these countries have systems that operate at low productivity. In the countries where the ruminant productions are low but the volume is high, reductions in the emission intensity can help the emission reductions. Introducing and adopting more climate smart and humane livestock practices could result in increased production efficiency and the reduction in sector-wide emission levels.

The recently ratified Nationally Determined Contributions of Sri Lanka (NDCs) include climate actions that focus on the livestock sector. This would also have impacts of co-benefit based actions as livestock industry would feature under adaptation as a sector mentioned within the NDCs, though it will also contribute to the reduction of emissions if focusing on reducing the scale of animal agriculture, and reduce the meat production. It is important that in the implementation of these NDCs, that the country adopts a humane approach, as all beings are impacted by climate change, not only humans.

First Steps towards Policy Change

Apart from the adaptation action taken as part of the country’s NDCs,  the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment of Sri Lanka recently organised the ‘Sri Lanka Next – A Blue Green Era’ Conference and Exhibition, and the 5th Asia- Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum, which took place from 17th – 19th October at Bandaranaike Memorial International Convention Hall. The forum focused on the theme of “adapting and living below 2 Celsius: bridging gaps in policy and practice”. As a token of the significance of vegetarianism in mitigating climate change issues, the inauguration reception for Sri Lanka NEXT conference was held as a meatless dinner. The reception which was held on the eve of the 17th of October was attended by over 1000 international and local delegates participating in the APAN. Serving as a tangible reminder of the alternative lifestyle options that are more environmentally friendly and sensitive to animal welfare, the meatless reception highlighted the Sri Lankan Government’s official commitment towards developing a more ecologically conscious society that is also sensitive to the welfare of animals.  On the whole, the reception which marked the commencement of the Government’s official campaign in addressing climate change, reiterated the message underlined by the UNEP in highlighting the need for a shift in dietary patterns into more ecologically wholesome meatless food consumption which serves to fulfil our individual and social responsibility towards creating a better environment.


  1. UNEP (2010) Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials, A Report of the Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management. Hertwich, E., van der Voet, E., Suh, S., Tukker, A., Huijbregts M., Kazmierczyk, P., Lenzen, M., McNeely, J., Moriguchi, Y.
  2. Figure 1sourced from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM) http://www.fao.org/gleam/results/en/
  3. Figure 2sourced from Wellesley, L., Happer, C., & Froggartt A.2015.Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption. Chatham House Report. The Royal Institute of International Affairs.London
  4. Scarborough, P., Appleby, P.N., Mizdrak, A. et al. Climatic Change (2014) 125: 179. doi:10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1
  5. Wellesley, L., Happer, C., & Froggartt A.2015.Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption. Chatham House Report. The Royal Institute of International Affairs.London

Related Articles

Thematic Areas

No items found.


About the Author
No items found.