The report, authored by leading international scientists, concludes that production efficiency improvements must be accompanied by a 30% reduction in livestock in high-producing regions if climate change targets are to be met.
It points out that a corresponding fall in the adult consumption of saturated fat from animal sources would also have health benefits, reducing heart disease by around 15% in the UK.
“A strategy to reduce production and consumption of foods from animal sources would help to prevent dangerous climate change from greenhouse-gas emissions and benefit the health of adults in countries consuming high amounts of animal products,” it states.
The report is one of a series of studies of six studies on climate change and health published in The Lancet ahead of the global climate change summit in Copenhagen next month.
The series, which was part-funded by the UK Department for Health, has already been endorsed by three government ministers: Health Secretary Andy Burnham, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband and International Development Minister Mike Foster.
Speaking at the launch of the series in London today, Burnham said: “Climate change can seem a distant, impersonal threat – in fact, the associated costs to health are a very real and present danger. Health Ministers across the globe must act now to highlight the risk global warming poses to the health of our communities. We need well-designed climate change policies that drive health benefits.”
Farming leaders have been quick to criticise ministers’ endorsement of the report’s findings, saying it demonstrates “poor judgement” on their behalf.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) president Peter Kendall said: “Farmers will be angry that, yet again, we have an ill-informed and simplistic report, which appears to completely misunderstand agriculture’s emissions and its role in climate change.
“But the most unbelievable thing is that this report appears to have been put together without any input from the one Government department that deals in food policy and understands the issues – Defra.”
He called for more investment in agricultural research and development to help farmers produce food more efficiently. “If the UK government wants to be seen as a leader at the climate change talks in Copenhagen, they will need to work with farmers and not alienate them with soundbites,” he said.
A Defra spokesperson said that cutting meat consumption is just one way in which people can reduce their impact on the environment. He pointed out that reducing food waste can also lead to big carbon savings.
“We are working with the industry to reduce the impact of the meat and dairy sectors right across the sector, from production to retail and waste disposal, to ensure that the environmental footprint of the meat we eat and the milk we drink is as low as possible," he said.