The cow in the room

Posted by Alice Baranyovits @ABaranyovits

CowLast week the Royal Society of New Zealand launched their report on options for climate change mitigation for New Zealand entitled ‘Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy for New Zealand’. As part of the launch they released several infographics including a panel on what immediate actions individuals can make to reduce their carbon footprint. These included increased use of public transport and cycling, planting trees, using energy efficient appliances and reducing the frequency of air travel. Whilst these are all important and worthwhile actions, I feel that there is one obvious oversight, one big elephant, or more accurately in this case, cow in the room and that’s that there is no mention on this infographic for the need to reduce meat and dairy consumption.

Now in order to be fully transparent…I’ll admit I’m a vegan and as my friends and family will attest, for someone who doesn’t eat any meat or dairy I do seem to spend quite some time talking about it. But while I’ll try to avoid climbing onto the soapbox for this one, I do feel that meat consumption is something that needs to and should be discussed.

New Zealanders it seems, like their meat. NZ is often listed as one of the most carnivorous countries in the world, with annual meat consumption frequently quoted as being greater than 100 kg per person (with one estimate at a super-sized 126 kg), putting it well above the global average of 42 kg per year – according to this chart from the Economist, New Zealanders are the 4th biggest meat consumers in the world!

Like many other developed countries, New Zealand’s meat consumption has remained fairly steady and is predicted to remain at similar levels for the coming decades. Globally however, it’s a different story. The demand for meat is growing, linked with increasing wealth and urbanisation of many developing countries. This increase in demand combined with rapid human population growth has seen meat production grow from around 70 million tonnes in 1961 to a huge 278 million tonnes in 2009, with further increases up to a whopping 460 million tonnes predicted by 2050. Now that is a lot of meat.

The stated contribution of livestock production to current global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions varies from around 10 to 25% (depending on whether emissions due to deforestation and land use change associated with pasture creation are included). But the regularly quoted FAO’s statistic of 14.5%, would put livestock production on par with the emissions contributed by the global transport sector. In NZ, agriculture contributors almost half (47% in 2010) of the country’s GHG emissions, 95% of which come from the pastoral system. On top of this, livestock production has various other substantial environmental impacts, such as high water use, groundwater contamination and biodiversity loss (summarised nicely here).

Ways to mitigate these GHGs are often described in two parts; reducing emissions during production (see here for more examples) and reducing demand. The Royal Society’s report contains multiple potential technical options that could be used to help reduce production related emissions, such as increasing farm efficiency, developing methane inhibitors and selectively breeding lower-emission animals.  However, although these technologies may decrease emission intensity, they are unlikely to limit overall emissions if total production continues to grow.

So how about reducing demand? A global shift to a more plant-based diet, much lower in animal protein than the current average diet in developed countries, has been repeatedly suggested by the UN and others, as one practical way to tackle not only GHGs, but other environmental issues associated with human food production (see the end of the post for some links). For example, in their Fifth Assessment Report the IPCC stated that global dietary change could have a substantial impact on agriculture’s GHG emissions, with a potential saving of 0.7-7.3Gt CO2-eq/yr in 2050. Additionally, a recent study by Springmann et al. (2016) reported that a global move towards a low-meat diet, which limited red meat intake to 300g a week, would reduce the predicted 2050 food-related emissions by 29%. If people went further and shifted to a fully vegetarian or vegan diet then they predicted that the food-related emissions would be decreased by 63 and 70% respectively.

Now I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone goes vegan, I understand and appreciate that there are many people that rely on the meat and dairy industry for their livelihoods, as well as the fact that many people simply enjoy eating burgers, sausages and cheese. But this isn’t about stopping eating meat but rather reducing how much and what type (beef, for example produces more emissions per kg of protein than poultry).

And yes I know that New Zealand exports much of the meat (83% of beef) and dairy (95%) it produces, so a reduction in domestic demand in New Zealand will have less impact than in a country that consumes most of its own meat. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act.  Changing your diet isn’t going to ‘solve’ climate change, but it is one of the easiest ways individuals can help reduce their own environmental impact.   It’s time to start talking about the cow in the room.  So, anyone for a veggie burger?

Further Reading:


ABAlice Baranyovits is a PhD student at the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is researching the movements of kererū in urban areas. She is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs, Mick Clout, Todd Dennis & George Perry.

6 thoughts on “The cow in the room

  1. Just some general comments:

    Discussions on the topic of “climate change” often seem to overlook the fact that tropical rain forests continue to be cut down at an alarming rate, driven by big business. Deforestation should be a serious crime under international law, under any circumstances, I suggest. I’m pretty sure I’m right in thinking that tropical rainforests provide a “climate change buffer”.

    “Climate change” is a global problem, N.Z. is not a big contributor, so bicycling to work or becoming vegetarian really is a mere “symbolic gesture”, I suggest. Also, the situation is complicated by governments seeing an opportunity to introduce all sorts of new taxes, which puts them at a bit of a COI for actually wanting to emissions to reduce (for then they will recover less taxes). The scientific evidence for the existence and cause(s) of “climate change” needs to be evaluated objectively, but it is hard to find any uninvolved parties. Government funded research has a “preferred outcome” in mind if the government wants to introduce taxes. I’m not sure why this seems to be premissed on “climate change” being caused by man, since the effects on the planet are the same whether it is caused by man or by natural processes.


    • The IPCC ( have evaluated the scientific evidence for the existence and causes of climate change, including loss of tropical rain forest. They conclude: “Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.” (IPCC 2013, p13 Summary for Policymakers). Although there are a range of sources of greenhouse gases, individuals can contribute to reducing emissions rather than waiting for big business and governments to solve the problem for us. And reducing meat consumption has a number of other environmental benefits as well.


    • Hi Stephen,
      If lots of people made ‘symbolic gestures’ we might actually make a difference. I completely agree with your view of deforestation by the way.


  2. It’s great to read an article like this that echoes my own opinion.

    I’ve been doing my best to eat ethically for decades but each time I swapped from one meat/fish source to another, I then discovered malpractice or sustainability factors. I then became more aware as the the huge environmental impact of meat farming and the resulting emissions caused.

    On the 18th of July, my wife and I will have been vegetarian for a year. Naomi is also dairy free, I still occasionally eat cheese and we both still eat free range eggs.

    It has been the easiest and most enjoyable life style change we have made. Shopping is now easier, guilt free and interesting. We cook far more often as in the north of England, there are very few vegetarian convenience foods. As we prepare more of our own meals from scratch we automatically eat far more healthily. Our energy levels are better as are our moods!

    Getting the right nutrients is easy. Dining out can still be a pain, hence me still accepting cheese to give me an option on the menu!

    We are aiming to move to New Zealand in the next couple of years, your article mentioned how much meat NZ consumes, what are the vegetarian options like over there?


    Kev & Naomi



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