As governments fret over how a finite amount of land can feed an ever-increasing population, new research released today suggests that a "more equitable distribution of meat and dairy" between the diets of rich and poor countries can help avoid the ecological impacts associated with factory farming and reduce global warming emissions.
"Agribusiness and biotechnology companies are aggressively promoting their model of high-input, intensive farming as necessary to address the food and climate crises," said Friends of the Earth food campaigner Kirtana Chandrasekaran. "This research blows their claims out of the water."
For the report, titled "Eating the Planet: Feeding and Fueling the World Sustainably, Fairly and Humanely", Compassion in World Farming and Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland modeled different diets, farming methods and land use.
They determined that it is possible to produce enough food for a booming population using methods that are both humane and do not require clearing forests to make room for agriculture, a major contributor to climate change.
Succeeding requires a diet balanced more evenly between meat and other food sources and between the wealthy Western countries and the developing world. FOE and CIWF recommend eating meat only three times a week, as opposed to the typical European diet of five times a week.
The FOE-CIWF report comes five days before heads of state will meet in Rome for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's World Summit on Food Security and less than a month before the climate talks in Copenhagen.
These two issues — food security and climate change — are intrinsically linked, say the report's authors. Intensive factory farming, they say, is responsible for at least 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions through deforestation and the amounts of chemicals and energy the industry uses.
"Continuing current trends of industrial farming and meat and dairy consumption will push the world's climate and resources over the edge," the organizations said in a statement.
Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, takes the link between climate change and food security a step further.
"In a very fundamental sense, the Copenhagen conference is a conference about food security," Brown said.
He sees three dramatic ways in which climate change will impact the availability and affordability of food, and thus the stability of societies: through the melting of ice sheets, the melting of mountain glaciers and the lower crop yields resulting from higher temperatures.
"The World Glacier Monitoring Service in Switzerland has recently reported the eighteenth consecutive year of shrinking mountain glaciers," he said, and "the melting of the glaciers represents the most massive threat to food security that we've ever faced."
Annual ice melt from glaciers in the Himalayas sustains the rivers that sustain the irrigation systems that, in turn, sustain the wheat and rice crops of the world's two largest producers — India and China.
"What happens to the glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau ... is a matter of concern for the entire world," Brown said, explaining that 1.3 billion Chinese competing with consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere for their domestic grain harvests would drive up food prices.
This political implications of a rise in food prices were in evidence as recently as the 2007-08 global food crisis when prices hit record highs and led to riots across the developing world.
Food security remains an issue today. A quarterly FAO report on crop prospects released Tuesday said, "Despite a satisfactory global cereal supply situation, 31 countries around the world require external assistance because of critical food insecurity," particularly in East Africa where poor rainfall and ongoing conflicts are leading to a need for emergency assistance.
Kenya's corn harvest is expected to be down 30 percent from last year, and about 5.9 million people in war-torn southern Sudan and Darfur are estimated to be in need of food assistance. Meanwhile, cereal prices in West Africa continue to be well above pre-food crisis levels. Millet in the region's major markets is 21 to 42 percent more expensive than it was at the same time of year in 2007.
In Rome today, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf put a number on the size of the assistance needed to end hunger in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere and to ensure a secure food supply: $44 billion a year. Currently world governments give $7.9 billion.
At next week's FAO summit, world leaders will discuss how to increase this investment, particularly in the development of poorer countries' agricultural systems.
The FOE-CIWF study, however, sees "distributing protein more fairly" as a silver bullet. "With as many obese as malnourished people in the world, fairer and healthier lower-meat diets are a win-win for people and the planet," Chandrasekaran said.
Whether people in the West are willing to stop eating as much meat and dairy as they please remains to be seen.
What is clear is that far more than lower emissions will be on the table in Copenhagen.
"Some of the low-lying island countries will be in Copenhagen because they're concerned rising sea levels will simply inundate them. Countries in Southern Europe and in Eastern Africa are concerned about higher temperatures, less rainfall, and spreading drought. Countries in East Asia and the Caribbean are concerned about more powerful storms," Brown said.
"But the one thing that underlies all the concerns and affects all countries is the effect of climate change on food security."