How Meat and Dairy Consumption Contribute Climate Change: The Case of Hong Kong
Malnutrition and food scarcity causes many diseases and conflicts worldwide. Today, approximately 811 million people suffer from problems related to malnutrition and hunger. This situation, in general, leads to a deepening of the wealth gap and inequalities between developing and developed countries. In addition, the possibility that the world population will reach 10 billion in 2050 is an announcer that humanity will face famine and significant environmental disasters due to excessive consumption of our planet's resources. Unsustainable industrial agriculture and animal husbandry, which presents today's diet model in which it is ''very easy'' and ''common'' to consume meat and animal foods, is one of the biggest causes of climate change.
Recent research reveals that the source of at least 15 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions is coming from industrial animal husbandry. This rate is higher than the greenhouse gas emissions caused by air and land traffic. On the other hand, animal feed production leads to deforestation, reducing our planet's capacity to eliminate greenhouse gases.
Along with the damage to the environment during the production, transportation and distribution stages of animals, animal waste is among the main factors that pollute nature and water. Meat production is also closely related to water consumption: it takes about 7,000 litres of water to produce 500 grams of cow meat. Therefore, it should not be forgotten that reducing meat consumption also contributes to efforts to combat famine globally. According to FAO data, 83 per cent of agricultural land in the world is used for livestock (mostly pasture and feed-grain production for animals). However, meat consumption meets only 18 per cent of the calories people need.
Eighty per cent of corn and 95 per cent of oats produced worldwide are used as animal feed. Out of every 5 tons of grain produced globally, two tons become animal (including chicken and fish) feed. Livestock worldwide consumes feed equivalent to the calories needed by approximately 8.7 billion people. According to the FAO, 4 billion more people would be fed if the crops grown on agricultural land used for livestock were used directly to feed people.
Another significant problem in the last report of WWF regarding this issue is the average agricultural land available for everyone living in the world. Today, there is an agricultural area of 2 thousand square metres per person. In 2050, it is expected to decrease to 1,700 square metres due to both the increase in the world population and the changes in the climate. While fertile agricultural areas are already decreasing critically, the dangers that negatively affect these areas are increasing.
‘’There needs to be a transition out of the industrial model of livestock production with massive numbers of cows in one place that have extra manure. Instead, there should be a shift away from this model to low-density stocking well-managed pasture. The alternative model will sequester carbon, increase soil health, and ultimately lead to a better climate,’’ says Shefali Sharma, director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
The case of Hong Kong
In 2021, the public research company Landgeist conducted a study examining the average meat consumption of Asian countries and reached quite striking results. According to the research, Asia has the highest meat consumption worldwide. In this context, as a special administrative region, Hong Kong is the most meat-consuming area in Asia and worldwide. According to the study, Hong Kong residents consume an average of 124 kilograms of meat. Although the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased over time, the figures revealed from the studies show that Hong Kong still has the highest per capita meat consumption in the world, with 664 g per day.
Hong Kong, whose food supply is largely dependent on imports rather than locally and sustainably grown products, imports approximately 90% of its total food supply from foreign countries. According to The Food and Health Bureau statistics, Hong Kong imports fresh food to fulfil its food supply. Most of this food supply comes from China, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States. Significant dependence on imports in this area causes an increase in carbon footprint due to countries and even transcontinental transportation. In addition, the demand for many frozen packaged foods is also very high. While this situation causes plastic pollution to increase, unfortunately, it also contributes to deepening the climate crisis.
About 65 years ago, Hong Kong used to produce almost two-thirds of the vegetables it consumed locally, rather than importing them. However, this balance of production has shifted as farmland in Hong Kong is being used to supply space for real estate growth and other infrastructure projects. According to data from the 2017 governmental Task Force on Land Supply, property developers own at least 1,000 hectares of farmland in the New Territories to "develop" their projects. This situation paves the way for the use of agricultural lands rather than their intended purposes and the abandonment of these lands. As a result, farming villages were demolished for ongoing infrastructure projects, such as providing the necessary space for the high-speed railway linking Hong Kong to Guangzhou.
In addition to all of these, the continued growth of Hong Kong's population is causing farmland to be used to construct new real estate and farming activities to account for 4%. The loss of importance of agriculture not only triggers the increase in import rates. This situation also brings about the decrease in Hong Kong's resources and increase in foreign dependency, deepening the effects of the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity and the increase in the rate of deforestation.
According to the Hong Kong Vegetarian Habit Survey conducted in 2018, although vegetarian, vegan and plant-based options are on the rise, there is still a greater consumption of beef, pork, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy than ever before in Hong Kong. Thus, effective changes should be made in eating habits based on animal source foods.
A Plant-based Alternative in Hong Kong: The Shared Meal
"The Shared Meal", an initiative established to offer practical and culturally appropriate alternatives to animal source foods in Hong Kong, crowdsources meatless home-cooked recipes and food memories. It aims to work towards affordable options to build a sustainable lifestyle, cultivate intentional consumption habits, and deepen momentum for change. In addition, the Shared Meal hopes to rebuild people’s emotional connection with climate facts and meatless eating by collecting food memories, inspiring more people to take action in their everyday lives.
The recipes shared via The Shared Meal also have international characteristics: Besides traditional veganised Hong Kong recipes, plant-based, vegetarian and vegan recipes from worldwide are also shared through this platform, including family dishes from Armenia, Bulgaria, Palestine and more. Hence, The Shared Meal bridges traditional Hong Kong motifs with a multinational face that offers intersectionalist-based environmentalism. With its diverse recipes and food memories, The Shared Meal puts meat-free eating – and everyday climate action – at the centre of the dinner table.
We spend our world's resources irreversibly to raise animals. If we ate the crops we grow directly instead of this routine, which has devastating consequences for all living things, we would yield more from the meat we eat. Furthermore, meat consumption can reduce biodiversity if forests and rural areas continue to be used for animal feed and livestock rearing.
Unless we change our eating habits, of course, it is impossible to achieve an effective environmental protection policy and the Paris Agreement goals. Reducing meat consumption by half and eating more vegetables and fruits will undoubtedly mitigate greenhouse gas emissions related to nutrition and the consumption of natural resources to a very significant extent.
As seen in the Hong Kong case, the misuse and destruction of agricultural lands is also a harbinger of a worldwide food shortage. Therefore, if sustainable and local farming practices are not integrated into the production processes of the countries with the mandatory regulations, the world's limited resources will be insufficient against the demands of the increasing population, which will bring even more catastrophic problems.