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Reducing red meat consumption: attacking two global dilemmas with one response

Key points

  • Red meat consumption is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing more to climate change than the entire transportation sector

  • So far, attempts at reducing consumption on climate change grounds have been unsuccessful

  • Evidence on the adverse health impacts of red meat consumption could be another strategy to help bring about policy change

The need to reduce human contribution to climate change has reached a level of utmost urgency on the global agenda. With the adoption of the Paris Agreement by the UNFCCC, and as Goal 13 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), efforts to mitigate climate change at every possible source have increased.

Livestock production accounts for almost 15% of all global emissions. Within this, the single largest share comes from emissions by ruminant livestock (cattle, goat, sheep and buffalo), the chief source of red meat consumption.

Efforts thus far to reduce emissions from livestock production have been limited. Sweden and Denmark have initiated political conversations to cut down on red meat consumption for climate change reasons. Working groups were established to explore the potential of meat taxation, following a similar pathway to other ‘sin taxes’ such as tobacco, sugary commodities and alcohol. However, developing sound justification and design for an excise tax is complex and these Scandinavian countries have been unsuccessful in implementing a red-meat tax.

Taking a health perspective could help bring about policy change to reduce red meat consumption. A WHO press release in 2015 raised concern over red meat consumption as it was linked to carcinogenic effects in humans. This sparked an increase in research on adverse outcomes linked with red meat consumption, but evidence remains unclear.

Our research attempts to answer whether red meat consumption increases the risk of chronic illnesses and mortality, specifically compared with white meat consumption. The impact on chronic illness, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, is particularly important given their growing prevalence. The research will synthesise the results of peer-reviewed, quantitative studies on the health effects of red meat consumption relative to other meats. As other systematic reviews are limited for this enquiry, the data will come from primary studies, consisting largely of cohort studies.

A possible outcome from our research is to motivate behaviour change policies, such as taxation, albeit meat tax research is still limited. Reducing red meat consumption may ameliorate both environmental deterioration and the global health burden. With enough research to support a public health rationale, our next step will be to investigate the approaches and economic analyses needed to support the implementation of behaviour change policies.

Further reading

About the authors

The study's team consists of three diversely skilled researchers, lead by Yihui Liang, who completed her MPH from Imperial College London, and is now working in both academic research, and health technology implementation. Sophie Gepp is finishing her MPH at LSHTM, Julia Simac is completing a MSc Global Health Policy at LSE, and Priya Krishna is pursing her medical degree from UCL. They are all members of the Politics in Global Health and Climate team at Polygeia, and are passionate about driving policy change through their research.


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