The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Consumerism Fuels Climate Change

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IN Africa you may never claim that people have enough food to eat because there is not enough food to go around! About 75 percent a billion Africans are hungry living on less than US$2 per day. Several millions more are facing hunger everyday, as agriculture yields continue to fall due to the effects of climate change.

Deaths range in the thousands annually. There is a growing middle income population, however, which is rapidly and efficiently re-defining not just the way that people eat, but what they eat, and even how they eat.

Expenditure patterns have shifted also, as households that have higher disposable incomes are demanding more of everything.

That means money is being spent on both basics and luxuries, some of which are not critical.

Nothing is wrong with the socio-economic elevation of African families. They need that, desperately.

However, the rising trends in African consumerism, which is concretising an already widespread practice in developed countries would compound the global climate change problem.

Worldwide, research shows that the growth in per capita consumption is strongly linked to increases in income levels, which ultimately translate into higher demand for everything else -- the base that supports consumerism.

In simple terms, consumerism is the blind, endless, perhaps irrational purchase and consumption of goods and services by consumers, perpetuated simply by the desire for more, and the belief such behaviour would drive economic growth. In many instances growth may be and has been achieved but at a cost.

How does consumerism fuel climate change?

One of the major driving points of consumerism is the desire for more, even when enough is available.

That desire is seldom satisfied, if at all. Now, that is the problem. The desire for more means that manufacturers have to continue producing more to meet demand. And with growing population numbers -- 5 billion people in 2005, 7 billion people in 2011 and 9 billion in 2025 -- this can only translate into stronger demand.

The processes that produce consumer goods and the systems within the consumer chain are both significant contributory factors in the cycle of climate change and global warming. Take for instance what it means for carbon emissions when a middle-income or wealthy couple possesses upwards of five personal vehicles and are looking to acquire more?

Or consider when families buy too much food for their own good they end up filling landfills with waste and rotten food.

To better illustrate the concept of consumerism in relation to climate change, I will use new findings from the United Nations Environment Programme on the production and consumption patterns in the livestock industry.

According to the UNEP's monthly bulletin for October 2012, the rapid growth of meat consumption worldwide, particularly in developing countries has resulted in overall meat production being responsible for between 10-25 percent of all world athropogenic greenhouse gases emissions each year.

Athropogenic emissions are those emissions caused by human activity. That means meat production and consumption constitute over 80 percent of all emissions produced from agriculture and related activities.

The UNEP says both industrial and traditional forms of meat production result in the release of greenhouse gases, listing the livestock sector as one of the top three significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems.

It says meat production results in "stresses" such as deforestation, desertification, excretion of polluting nutrients, overuse of fresh water, inefficient use of energy, diverting food for use as feed and emission of GHGs. The most worrisome impact of industrial meat production is its relation to climate change.

Animal rearing results in the release of dangerous gases such, as methane and nitrous oxide.

These gases are known to have a warming effect on the earth's surface. Meat supply varies enormously from region to region. UNEP said Americans are the biggest consumers eating up to 120kg of meat per person per year followed closely by Australia and New Zealand.

Europeans and South Americans consume 76kg of meat per person annually while Asia eats only 25 percent of the US average led by China.

However, Asia is the fastest growing meat consuming region, figures showing a 30-fold increase in 50 years and 165 percent since 1990. Globally, the average meat consumption is 42kg per year or 115 grams per day.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation says the total amount of meat produced rose to 278 million tonnes in 2009 from just 70 million tonnes in 1961 in line with rising global population. It predicts the consumption of meat will hit 460 million tonnes by 2050. Agriculture contributes up to 35 percent of total world emissions.

Within this web, cattle rearing is the biggest contributor of emissions compared to goats and sheep.

FAO says there were 143 billion cattle in the world this year, 20 percent of these being in Africa, 33 percent Asia and 25 percent in South America.

Change the way you eat

Now in order to limit the climate change damage, the UNEP is encouraging more sustainable food systems.

It says changes in the human diet may be a practical tool for reducing emissions.

Of course, there are several other routes of achieving lower GHG growth. However, "as a large percentage of beef is consumed in hamburgers or sausages, the inclusion of protein extenders from plant origin would be a practical way to replace red meat.

"A switch to less climate harmful meat may be possible, as pigs and poultry produce significantly less methane gas than cows," the UNEP said.

It further suggested that in order to keep GHG emissions at levels, as those in 2000 meat consumption should reduce to 70-90 grams per day, followed by significant consumptive behavioural changes in both the developed and developing countries.

A reduction in the consumption of meat, especially red meat could have multiple health benefits, as evidence has shown links between high meat diets and bowel cancer and heart disease.

A study modelling consumption patterns in the UK estimates that a 50 percent reduction in meat and dairy products, if replaced by vegetables, cereals and fruit could result in a 19 percent reduction in GHG emissions and up to 43 600 fewer deaths yearly in that country.

What the UNEP is essentially calling for is responsible and sustainable eating lifestyles. Think about it.

You have never thought in your lifetime people would be called to eat in ways deemed acceptable, socially and environmentally. Now that is the direction people must take to keep the planet happy. People are being asked to stop and think before they act.

Even so, they must consider and ensure their actions are not leading to or feeding into some form of environmental disaster. That should deal with the challenge of excessive desire when applied across the board, well, we hope so.

"As changing the eating habits of the world's population will be difficult and slow to achieve, a long campaign must be envisioned along with incentives to meat producers and consumers to change their production and dietary patterns. Healthy eating is not just important for the individual but the planet as a whole," advised the UN's environment watchdog.

God is faithful.

jeffgogo@gmail.com

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