Meat doesn’t drive high carbon footprints in Japan. Instead, it’s sugary foods, alcohol and dining out.
Urgent appeals to eat less meat are common across the globe, but what impact on reducing emissions might they have in societies where meat consumption isn’t what’s driving carbon footprints higher?
Researchers from Japan, Norway and the United Kingdom set out to see if that’s even the right question for Japan, and what they found suggests that meat consumption explains less than 10 percent of the difference when comparing the Japanese households with high carbon footprints to those with lower carbon footprints.
Instead, it’s sugary foods, alcoholic beverages and restaurant dining. The findings were based on 60,000 households in 47 prefectures, and included data on income, geography and other factors, as well as the diets that generally are already low in Western-style meat consumption.
The results led Dr. Keiichiro Kanemoto of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto to caution against a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing diet-linked emissions. Kanemoto, whose research interests focus on climate change and environmental economics, led the team of five scientists who published their study this month in the journal One Earth.
“If we are serious about reducing our carbon footprints, then our diets must change,” said Kanemoto. “Our findings suggest that high carbon footprints are not only a problem for a small number of meat lovers in Japan. It might be better to target less nutritious foods that are excessively consumed in some populations.”
There is no question that meat consumption is linked to higher emissions and damaging methane in particular; the EAT– Lancet Commission, Greenpeace and other researchers are consistent in their evidence-based messages calling for dramatic reductions. What the Japanese project adds is more awareness that specific national and even regional cultures may need other pathways on food-related emissions.
“Due to wealth, culture, and farming practices, different regions in a country consume food differently. Japan alone has prefectures with more than 10 million people and others with fewer than one million,” says Dr. Christian Reynolds, a paper co-author from the Institute of Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield.
“These regional and income differences in food consumption are also found in the UK, Europe, Australia and the USA. All countries are facing challenges in how to shift diets to be healthier and more sustainable. This evidence from Japan demonstrates that research can help us to identify what to focus on.”
For this reason, the sugar, alcohol, and restaurant or takeout dining need to be looked at in other countries too. Kanemoto and Reynolds are quick to affirm both the environmental and health value of cutting back on meat, but it’s not the only reason – or sometimes even the main reason – that diet-related carbon footprints can be pushed higher.
The researchers also think Japan may serve as a useful case study for other countries, as they move forward in achieving meat consumption goals with comparable urbanized and aging populations.
“Japan’s diet and demographics make it a bellwether for other Western and Asian nations that are beginning to encounter these phenomena,” they note. Even where that’s not the case, the data that show Japan is different suggest that other nations might need to look at how and where their patterns are different too.