Meat Consumption and Climate Change, the Link Dissected

Meat Consumption and Climate Change, the Link Dissected

Culinary Traditions in Bhutan: Toll of Meat and its Climate Conundrum

In the land of thunder dragons, where prayer flags flutter in the Himalayan breeze and spirituality permeates every facet of life, culinary traditions are as rich and diverse as the mountain landscapes themselves. Meat, a staple of Bhutanese cuisine, graces tables throughout the year, but it is during auspicious occasions and festivals like Losar, Blessed Rainy Day, Dashain, Tshechu, and Nyinglog that its consumption swells, marking moments of celebration and communal reverence. Yet, beneath the savory aromas and festive indulgence lies a simmering concern—a concern not only for the culinary customs but for the very ecosystem that sustains them.

In the undulating landscapes of Laptsakha, where the majestic valleys of Punakha unfolds Dorji Zam, a 50-year-old guardian of heritage and connoisseur of tastes, resides. Her kitchen, a sanctuary of warmth and aromas, serves as the heart of the household, where culinary alchemy transpires with each flick of the ladle. Like other housewives, Dorji Zam has to fulfill the responsibilities as a Bhutanese housewife, serving meals to her family. She has to procure ration. Though not a habitual consumer, Zam stocks little variety of meats to balance her family diet, also as a testament to the centrality of meat in Bhutanese cuisine, to serve the guests.  The guests, though may not blame, “A guilt pinch in my sense with the standard of meal served for the guests” Zam shared.  Beef reigns supreme on Zam’s stove.

However, as the family enjoys the festive feasting and delicious dishes, there is a dark cloud hanging overhead – the environmental consequences of consuming meat, especially beef. Despite Zam’s unwavering commitment to her culinary traditions, she is somewhat oblivious to the ecological implications, as they are obscured by the influence of tradition and religious convictions.

With the growing urgency and effects of climate change, meat has become a common focal point for efforts to address the issue. Supporters are encouraging the public to reduce meat consumption in order to help protect the environment. Certain advocates have even proposed implementing a meat tax as a means of decreasing its consumption.

Similarly, 79-year-old Dema from Shaba, Paro shared she has to take meat as protein giving food to mend her old body. However, she avoids it on auspicious occasions. But, “I have no knowledge of the impact of meat on climate change,” she said.

Zam, a believer in the sanctity of life and the teachings of Buddhism, found solace in the nourishment provided by red meat. To her, it wasn’t just sustenance; it was a means to uphold vital physiological functions and honor the needs of her body. Yet, beneath this belief lay a shadow of guilt, for the consumption of meat stood starkly against the first precept of non-killing. Her heart wrestled with the contradiction, torn between reverence for life and the necessities of existence. “Yet, we have to consume it as a part of our diet,” she shares her guilt. Unbeknownst to her, a greater weight loomed over her conscience—the impact of her dietary choices on the world around her.

Similarly, from the quaint village of Shaba, Dema, with the wisdom of her 79 years, faced a similar conundrum. In her twilight years, she leaned on meat as a source of protein, a balm to mend her aging body. Yet, even in her adherence to tradition, she made concessions, eschewing meat on sacred occasions. Her reverence for the customs of her ancestors was unwavering, but her understanding of the broader implications of her dietary habits remained veiled. But, “I have no knowledge of the impact of meat on climate change,” she said.

In the tapestry of their lives, woven with the threads of tradition, belief, and necessity, Zam and Dema found themselves at a crossroads. Their understanding, shaped by heritage and personal conviction, had shielded them from the knowledge that the very sustenance they relied upon held a deeper consequence—a toll on the delicate balance of the planet.

As they stood on the threshold of awareness, the whispers of change beckoned, urging them to peer beyond the veil of tradition and embrace a new understanding. For in the quietude of introspection, they realized that reverence for life extended beyond the boundaries of individual existence, encompassing the interconnectedness of all beings and the world they inhabit. And in this realization lay the seed of transformation, a journey towards harmony with the earth and all its inhabitants.

How meat consumption impacts climate change?

The earth’s atmosphere consists of large varieties of gases and other materials. A study underscores the environmental impact of animal agriculture, revealing that 57% of all food production emissions stem from the use of animals for food and livestock feed. In contrast, plant-based food cultivation contributes to 29% of emissions. The stark contrast in emissions, such as the 70kg emitted per kilogram of beef compared to 2.5kg for 1kg of wheat, emphasizes the need for societies to acknowledge this disparity in addressing the climate crisis.

The Senior Resilient Livelihoods Specialist of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Dr Surendra Raj Joshi, shares that the use of animals for meat production has an impact on climate change. “Scientific assessments reveal that meat production requires more land and water and emits more GreenHouse Gas (GHG) per gram of edible protein than common plant protein. For example, the GHG emission from 1 kg beef is 30 times more than emission from 1 kg of wheat,” he said.

The Senior Resilient Livelihoods Specialist said that most emissions result from feed production and are released during animals’ digestive processes. Animals need water, land for grazing and production of fodder and feed. According to an estimate more crop land is required to feed livestock rather than people. The livestock release large quantities of methane, which is the second most significant contributor to GHG leading to climate change. Emissions also result from transportation (cold chain) and refrigeration, meat processing and value adding activities.  Impact on climate change will be from both the cooking, stocking but more from the production and supply chain management according to Dr Surendra Raj Joshi.

The professor for the Department of Climate, Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (USA), Atul K. Jain explained that the greenhouse gas emissions (particularly for CO2, CH4 and N2O) come from plant-based and animal-based agriculture. Particularly, plant-based agriculture emissions come from producing crops for human consumption, such as rice and maize. Emissions from animal-based agriculture come from producing crops for animal feed and from producing and maintaining grazing pastures.

When cooking food, fossil fuels are burned, releasing CO2. Both plant- and animal-based greenhouse gas emissions stem from land-use changes, farmland management activities, raising livestock, and beyond-farm-gate emissions. Land-use changes involve clearing ecosystems for agriculture, while farmland emissions result from various farming practices. Livestock emissions include those from enteric fermentation and manure management, and beyond-farm-gate emissions involve activities like mining, manufacturing, and transportation related to food production.

Meanwhile, as per the Trade Statistics 2023, Bhutan imported live animals and animal products total worth of about Nu 3.7 billion(B) which from India alone accounts to Nu 3.5 B while the country exported worth of Nu 0.42B.

Imported meat of bovine animals, fresh or chilled 268 weight in kilograms were imported from India while Carcasses and half-carcasses 35,000 KGM were imported from India.

A total of 295,444 cattle were recorded in 2021, an increase of 5 percent from 2020, though overall the cattle population has been declining since 2006 as per the Livestock Census 2021. There were about 116,134 Jersey cows in the country in 2021.

The structure of the food consumption of households by major food, the households spend 10.4% on meats. While urban areas spend 55.9% on meat as per the Bhutan Living Standard Survey Report, 2022.

In the tapestry of Bhutanese culinary traditions, Zam and Dema stand as poignant symbols of a deeper dilemma faced not only by their nation but by the world at large. Through their stories, we glimpse the intricate interplay between heritage, necessity, and the looming specter of climate change.

By Sangay Rabten, Punakha