What your dinner has to do with forests

by Naomi van den Berg

The UNFCCC truly covers all possible linkages of a diverse range of phenomena/processes to climate change. And yes, your choice of diet is one of them. Now, we know that the topic of shifting one’s diet not a very popular one. After all, what we eat surely is our own business, right? Well, things are far more complicated than that. And in order to foster a timely response to climate change, we need to realize a large-scale shift in diet.

This was the topic of the session ran by the Global Forest Coalition, called: “What’s at Steak? The true cost of meat.” Besides a clever pun, the title of this session immediately triggered my interests, particularly because it would be in a forest-related context. Before I dive into the key messages of the session, I would like to line out some of the physical laws that form the basics of the connection between your diet and the large-scale, complicated processes of climate change.

Basically, the Laws of Thermodynamics state that a transformation of energy from one form to the other implies energy loss. Photonic energy is captured by our great friends: plants and trees. When their biomass is eaten, this energy is transferred – however – a part of it is lost. Only 10% of the energy manages to transfer each time. You can therefore imagine that eating the herbivores, in turn, is pretty energy-inefficient. The image shows a quick overview of this trophic pyramid.


Now on to the session. Let me first say this session was highly interactive and extremely productive. Different speakers talked about the different aspects of the connection between forest ecosystems, climate change and diets. The session started off with explaining that a sustainable diet inherently implies a drastic shift in dietary choices for many societies. A current trend that is counteracting this, is the fact that people are increasingly

A) consuming an excess amount of protein; and

B) that more and more of this protein originates from animal sources (this ‘gap’ between animal- and plant based protein consumption is expected to increase another 80% by 2050 based on current trends).Looking back at the trophic pyramid image, this trajectory leads to an exponential loss of energy efficiency.

Alright, so how do forests factor in to the bigger picture? The livestock industry largely uses soy to feed the animals. Once again, I would like to stress that if this soy were to be fed directly to people, energy efficiency would be immensely higher (i.e. 90% of the energy per unit food that would otherwise be lost is maintained). This would thus mean a significant difference in global landuse. In order to grow soy meant to feed the cows, deforestation is – unfortunately – the answer in most cases.

When it comes to current tropical deforestation, we can attribute over 90% to the production of livestock. The meeting mentioned that the WTO is involved in global trade agreements of soy, and that they have clear and transparent reports available about the circulation of soy.


Another interesting imagery provided by the speakers of the WRI (world resource institute) was the Cattle Nation idea:  if you put all the cows meant for livestock production together in one country, it would be the third largest CO2 emitter in the world. Yes, the cows would follow the USA and China. And it would follow them closely.

Now, we do realize that pushing for vegan or vegetarian agenda may not be an appropriate request for countries who are facing other challenges. However, a drastic change in the proportion of animal protein in the average diet needs to be realized one way or the other in order to foster durability and longevity of our collective food intake.  Cutting down more forest can’t be the solution to feeding more and more mouths.The idea of shifting diets has to do with the SDGs (in particular 2 and 12) and the Paris Agreement. Shifting diets could be a positive way to fulfill both agendas.

Progress in terms of stimulating this shift has been realized both via bottom-up (education on i.e. health risks associated with eating meat) and top-down (meat taxes) pathways and seems to continue the trend of choosing a plant-based diet (or at least, partially) in the Western world. The challenge remains, however, to simulate a diet shift in developing nations. After all, one should have alternatives in food sources in order to be able to choose in the first place. This underlines the importance of SDG 2: eliminating hunger.

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