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From heat stress and the impact of drought on pasture to carbon taxes, the meat industry faces significant risks from climate change - but there are alternatives
Maria Lettini is Executive Director of the FAIRR Initiative
Running to over 3,500 pages and released as the Russia-Ukraine war dominated the headlines, it is understandable if the food sector missed some of the detail in recent reports on adapting to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Understandable but disastrous, as they revealed the science to be stark: climate-related extreme weather events such as drought, heavy rainfall and fires will have huge financial repercussions for the animal agriculture sector.
A new briefing from the investor network FAIRR on the IPCC reports suggests that the meat and dairy industry in particular faces an ‘Apollo 13’ moment – in other words, a near disaster that requires innovation to ensure survival.
The Apollo 13 mission, the subject of a blockbuster movie of the same name, only avoided disaster after engineers worked with three astronauts to reconfigure their CO2 filter system to ensure they had enough air to survive the journey back to Earth.
The IPCC reports found that heat stress among livestock in an increasingly warmer world is set to wipe 20% off the global value of beef production ($38 billion) and 7% off dairy production ($22bn) by the end of the century.
For every degree of warming, heat stress causes the average animal’s food intake to decrease by 3-5%, resulting in reduced productivity and higher mortality rates.
This physical risk adds to climate-related regulatory and financial risks for the beef sector. FAIRR calculates that a carbon tax by 2050 would increase costs for beef companies by up to 55% of current average earnings.
Indeed, we are already witnessing the impact of more frequent hot weather on animal production. Cattle numbers in Nepal have declined due to an increase in the number of exceptionally hot days, and milk producers in West Africa and China have experienced stagnated production as a result of rising temperatures. Heat stress is already costing the US dairy industry up to $1.5 billion per year in revenue.
But it’s not just producers that are feeling the impact, as rising temperatures will also result in rising costs for consumers. In the United States, heatwaves and drought are making it more expensive for farmers to raise cattle, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts prices are likely to increase between 4% to 7% for wholesale beef, and 4% to 5% for dairy products.
Animal production systems are also reliant on natural grassland that is vulnerable to climate change. IPCC projections found that 10% of land currently used for cultivating major crops and livestock will be unsuitable by mid-century due to rising temperatures and depleting water supplies, and some parts of the world are already facing this climate emergency. The ongoing heatwave that has engulfed Pakistan and India has seen the yield from wheat crops there drop by 50% in areas hit by extreme temperatures, adding fuel to fears of a global food shortage.
Reconfiguring the system
The IPCC reports also talk about the potential innovation required to reconfigure the animal agriculture sector.
The scientists behind the reports endorse the substantial potential of alternative proteins, and found that diversification into sustainable proteins such as plant-based, cellular and insect products would enable the industry to reduce exposure to key risks. This spells opportunity for investors: analysis has found that alternative proteins could amount to 64% of the global protein market by 2060.
While we have already seen some progress on protein diversification, much more needs to be done, and the IPCC reports highlight the need for a rapid transformation of the food system.
At this stage, responding to our ’Apollo 13 moment’ does not require more (rocket) science - the data and the scenarios are staring us in the face. What we need is for investors, protein producers, policy-makers and consumers to work together to integrate new paradigms enabling a transformation of how our food is produced and consumed.
Such a system would have to be underpinned by more sustainable and resilient production, thereby reducing environmental impact and protecting food security for the decades ahead.