“The problem about sustainability is that it’s all about systems thinking. And the modern world just doesn’t do systems thinking – whether you’re talking science, policy-making, health, education – or anything else that matters, for that matter!”

That little observation was dropped into the middle of a particularly lively discussion I was taking part in last week as part of Forum for the Future’s Reconnections at Findhorn – over an absolutely delicious vegetarian meal! And unfortunately for all of us, it’s spot-on.

So let’s indulge ourselves for a moment with a celebration of the systems approach that lies at the heart of Philip Lymbery’s Farmageddon. His subtitle (“The True Cost of Cheap Meat”) provided the way in here: from cheap meat, the scope widens out to embrace not just animal welfare, but human health, antibiotics, environmental pollution, water consumption, soil erosion, land use, accelerating climate change, corporate accountability, the failings of democracy, and the future of capitalism!

You need a book as long as Farmageddon to cover that kind of broad terrain! So I’m just going to unpack one little nexus in that great bit picture: the links between population, meat consumption and climate change. A few statistics just to get your juices flowing:

  1.  It’s almost inevitable that the number of human beings on this planet will increase from today’s figure of around seven billion to at least nine billion in the second half of this century.
  2. To keep pace with the demand for food from that rising population, agricultural experts believe we will need to find an additional two million square kilometres of farming land by 2030.
  3. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, that assumes that the livestock population required to feed that number of people will increase from around 70 billion animals today to around 120 billion by 2050.
  4. With 70 billion animals, today’s meat and dairy industries already contribute anywhere between 15 and 20 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, depending on how you do the sums. I think you can probably do your own sums for what that means for emissions from 120 billion animals in 2050.
  5. If we want to maintain any kind of stable climate, the target agreed by world leaders is to restrict the average temperature increase to no more than two degrees centigrade by the end of this century. Unfortunately, that seems an increasingly unattainable target.
  6. That means we’re at risk of dangerous climate change. If the planet warms by just two degrees centigrade, the amount of land lost to rising sea levels by the end of the century would be around two million kilometres square.

Only connect!

But the problem is that we don’t connect. For all the amazing work being done by scientists and NGOs all over the world to ensure that a really substantial climate deal is done by the end of 2015, as part of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, you will rarely hear even a passing reference to the population connection; and although the meat connection is surfaced rather more often, there’s never a set of policy prescriptions to go with it.

So let’s just lay this one on the line: climate campaigners are fooling themselves and their constituencies if they think there’s ever going to be a real deal to be done on climate change that doesn’t press hard both for accelerated investment in progressive family planning (to ensure that human numbers peak just as soon as possible, and then start to decline), and explicit policy interventions on a global basis to ensure that per capita meat consumption peaks just as soon as possible, and then starts to decline.

In my new book, The World We Made, written from the vantage point of 2050 looking back to explain how it was that we got to be living in a pretty good, fair, dynamic and genuinely sustainable world in 2050, I mapped out what would need to happen on meat consumption:

“Despite the horrifying animal welfare impacts involved in factory farming early in the century, the experts were confidently predicting that meat consumption would grow from around 290 million tonnes in 2010 to around 465 million tonnes in 2050. Well, that didn’t happen: instead, public opinion began to change, for both health and environmental reasons. Per capita meat consumption plateaued in 2030 at around 355 million tonnes in total – the peak meat moment, if you like!

The chronic shortage of land was the big issue: in 2020, livestock farmers had been using an astonishing 37% of all productive land to rear animals and grow their feed, so change had to come. This figure is now down to little more than 20%.”

I suspect that Philip may have even more ambitious targets for reducing average per capita meat consumption than my own targets – but maybe he’ll settle for a modicum of systems thinking as the best possible way of achieving even greater gains in the long term.