Climate and environmental scientist Dr. Amos Tai, who graduated from Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong (LPCUWC) in 2004, shares that the growing number of people shifting towards a meat-intensive diet is one of the major causes of the global food crisis.

Amos, who is an atmospheric scientist with research specializing on the impacts of climate change and interrelated issues of agriculture, ecosystem health and air pollution, says a meat-intensive diet puts pressure on both crop productivity and land resources.

“Meat production, as we know, is catastrophic to the environment,” he says. This is Amosespecially true in the face of climate change and an increasing human population.

When a human consumes grains, Amos, citing a study in the National Geographic, says one can source 100 calories from that intake. But when the same amount of grains is fed to livestock or poultry, one yields a substantially less caloric content equivalent from their meat – only 3 calories from beef, 10 calories from pork and 12 calories from chicken.

“If more people are shifting towards a meat-intensive diet then you need to grow even more grains. And to grow grains, you need land, you need resources, you need fertilizer — and all of those are very energy-intensive and detrimental to the environment,” Amos says.

The global food crisis is made worse by climate change, pollution and overpopulation. With the highest temperatures recorded in the last decade, Amos says agriculture and human heath are adversely affected.  Extreme temperatures, more frequent natural disasters as well as more serious air pollution all damage crops, and the reduced access to food, especially in poor countries where environmental problems tend to hit harder and food distribution is highly uneven, takes a toll on public health and quality of life.

(Click to download: Amos' PowerPoint Presentation)

Amos also shares implication of a growing population on food security, which, he says, is largely influenced by uneven distribution due to income inequality, poverty and low agricultural productivity. By 2050, he says human population is estimated to grow by around 35%, but the demand on food supply and productivity by then does not only need to increase by the same percentage: “It needs to double as world population also encompasses a lot of people who would like to shift towards a more meat-intensive diet.”

So what is the problem with that?

To Amos: “This puts a lot of strain on the earth’s resources. We do not have enough resources; we are running out of lands to grow crops.” And based on his research, if global warming and air pollution remain uncontrolled by 2050, crop production will further deteriorate by 15% and undernourishment rate scaling up by around 50%. Conversely, if at least air pollution is carefully controlled, the figures would not be as bad – 9% decrease in crop production and 27% increase in undernourishment rate.

To reduce the impacts of climate change and air pollution on food security and agriculture, Amos proposes at least four measures: aggressive air pollution control, breeding and selection of heat-tolerant, drought-tolerant and pollutant-tolerant crop cultivars, carrying out sustainable farming methods, and adopting a mostly plant-based diet with minimal meat consumption.

He discussed his research findings as part of his keynote talk during the United World Colleges (UWC) Day celebration last 21 September, reflecting on the theme of “Sustainability”, the focus of LPCUW under UWC Day global theme of “Inspire Change”.

A self-confessed computer geek who enjoys coding, Amos was one of the scholars at LPCUWC and credits his motivation to create an impact in the community to his UWC education. After graduating from LPCUWC, Amos was accepted into and received a scholarship for his undergraduate study in Environmental Engineering Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He later proceeded to Harvard University where he obtained his Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental Science and Engineering with a focus on Atmospheric Science. He is currently an Assistant Professor in Earth System Science at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), which he joined in 2013.

Read related article: Achieving Sustainability Inspires UWC Day Celebration at LPCUWC 

(Credits: Photo of Amos in banner photo is from CUHK website.)