25/01/2015 9:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Modi And Obama: Stop Ignoring The Cow In The Room

Allison Joyce via Getty Images
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - OCTOBER 5: Cows wait to be loaded on a truck after being bought at a cattle market the day before the Eid-al-Adha Festival October 5, 2014 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Eid Al-Adha, known as the 'Feast of the Sacrifice', is one of the most significant festivals on the Muslim calendar and lasts for four days. The holiday marks the end of the Haji Pilgrimage and serves as a day to remember the Islamic profit Ibrahim, and his willingness to sacrifice of his son, Ismail (Ishmael) as an act of submission to Allah, before Allah intervened and gave Ibrahim a lamb to slaughter in the place of his son. On this day, Muslims in countries around the world start the day with prayer and spend time with family, offer gifts and often give to charity. It is customary for Muslim families to honour Allah by sacrificing a sheep or goat and sharing the meat amongst family members. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

This week, ahead of the 2015 climate change talks in Paris and US President Barack Obama's visit to India to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a young man and a young woman braved Delhi's rain and cold wearing little more than body paint in the colours of the Indian and United States flags. These young people hoped desperately to urge these leaders to save the planet by promoting a vegan (plant-based) diet.

India is the world's third-largest carbon polluter, behind China and the United States, and it accounts for about 6 per cent of the world's total carbon emissions. India is also among the "at extreme risk" countries of the world where the economic impact of climate change will be most keenly felt by 2025, according to research released by the British risk consultancy firm Maplecroft. Already today, according to a report by the World Bank, the annual cost of environmental degradation in India amounts to about Rs 3.75 trillion, or US$80 billion, which is equivalent to about 5.7 per cent of gross domestic product.

India is already suffering from some serious effects of climate change, including a warming climate, changing rainfall patterns, droughts, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. What this means in real terms for people in India is problems such as extreme weather (heat waves, cyclones and floods); a drop in crop production; a resurgence of several vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever (caused by temperature fluctuations); and an increased risk to food, energy and water security.

Study after study has shown that there's a strong correlation between the production of animal-based foods and climate change.

A report released in 2010 by the United Nations Environment Programme's International Panel of Sustainable Resource Management points out that as the global population surges towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050, diets rich in meat and dairy products will be unsustainable. The report further stated that a global shift towards a vegan diet is necessary to protect the world from the worst impacts of climate change.

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, who has been the chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the past 12 years and is also a member of Prime Minister Modi's Council on Climate Change, has been vocal about the relationship between the production of animal products and climate change. Dr Pachauri has said on numerous occasions that diet change is important because of the high levels of greenhouse-gas emissions and other environmental problems associated with rearing animals.

Yet both Indian and American regulators have failed to adequately recognise the contribution of meat and dairy production to climate change. On the contrary, India sold 16.74 per cent more meat and meat products between April and November of 2014 than it did during the same period the previous year. India is the world's largest milk producer and is among the world's largest beef exporters. The United States is the second-largest meat producer in the world, after China.

No matter what else these countries may choose to do to address climate change, research shows that if meat and dairy production's contribution to environmental destruction is not addressed, we may still be heading for disaster.

A widely publicised report published by the Worldwatch Institute in 2009 estimated that 51 per cent of worldwide greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions may be attributable to agriculture, specifically cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels and pigs who are raised to be killed and eaten. The total amount of GHG emissions was established by adding up emissions involved in clearing land to graze livestock and grow feed, raising livestock and processing and transporting the end products.

Earlier, in 2006, Livestock's Long Shadow, the widely cited 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, estimated that 7,516 million metric tons per year of CO2e, or 18 per cent of annual worldwide GHG emissions, are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, horses, pigs and birds raised for food.

The authors of the Worldwatch Institute report reviewed the direct and indirect sources of GHG emissions from livestock and felt that animal agriculture's contribution had previously been underestimated or overlooked. One of the authors explained in a New York Times piece that the key difference between the 18 per cent and 51 per cent figures was that the latter accounts for the exponential growth in livestock production and large-scale deforestation and forest-burning that have caused a drastic decline in the Earth's photosynthetic capacity as well as large and accelerating increases in volatilisation of soil carbon. It is also now believed that Livestock's Long Shadowapparently underestimated the amount of land used for livestock and feed production by a large margin.

International think-tank Chatham House recently released a report on the lack of public awareness of animal agriculture's contribution to climate change. That report conservatively stated that the livestock sector is responsible for 14.5 per cent of global GHG emissions but noted that this is still more than the contribution of the transportation sector.

What's clear is that the contribution of animal agriculture to climate change is highly significant and ignoring it would be catastrophic.

A recent Oxford University study suggests that people who eat meat are responsible for almost twice as many dietary greenhouse-gas emissions per day as vegetarians and about two-and-a-half times as many emissions as vegans (people who avoid all animal products). In fact, the study found that people who eat more than 3.5 ounces of meat per day--about the size of a deck of playing cards--generate 15.8 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) each day, while vegetarians and vegans generate 8.4 pounds and 6.4 pounds of CO2e, respectively. Essentially, the study found that the dietary greenhouse-gas emissions among meat-eaters were between 50 and 54 per cent higher than among vegetarians and between 99 and 102 per cent higher than among vegans.

When scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Swedencalculated various ways to combat climate change, they found that cutting greenhouse-gas emissions from transportation and energy use alone is not effective. The lead scientist of the study, Dr Fredrik Hedenus, says that "reducing meat and dairy consumption is crucial for bringing agricultural climate pollution down to safe levels." The Swedish scientists predict that by 2050, beef and lamb production will account for half of all agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions but only 3 per cent of human caloric intake. The dairy industry is expected to cause about 25 per cent of agricultural climate pollution by 2050.

Ilmi Granoff of the Overseas Development Institute in the United Kingdom has urged officials that "the fastest way to address climate change would be to dramatically reduce the amount of meat people eat."

Also, a 2014 study published in New Scientist magazine found that just by going vegan, one person can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases his or her diet contributes to climate change by up to 60 per cent.

Narendra Modi has been vocal about his support for protecting cows and about his opposition to what he called the "pink revolution" (subsidised meat production and promotion) as part of his election campaign for what appeared to be largely animal-welfare reasons. A disturbing and highly publicised video exposé titled "Glass Walls" by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India shows animals in India transported to slaughterhouses in such a cruel manner that their bones break. These animals are then slaughtered with dull knives in full view of other animals. Most animals raised for food in the United States are kept in such crowded conditions on factory farms that they cannot even turn around. Many people around the world therefore consider concern for animals reason enough to go vegan, while others are choosing to eat vegan to improve or maintain good health.

But for the sake of the planet, let's hope that our vegetarian Modi works to ensure "the cow in the room" stops being ignored when it comes to environmental protection and makes reducing meat and dairy production and consumption a key point in any plans that India and the United States make for tackling greenhouse-gas emissions.

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