Less Meat, Less Heat

by Anitra Pavlico

The gap between the gravity of climate change and the average person’s ability to mitigate the crisis is utterly dispiriting. If individual action is required, we feel powerless because it defies logic that using a gallon of hot water plus soap to prepare a mayonnaise jar for the recycling bin will save the planet. If government action is required, we feel powerless because most governments are either falling short, or in the case of the United States, actively denying that there is a problem. It is enough to cause climate-change burnout.

I recently attended a talk given by the head of a local environmental group on the connection between people’s diets, especially the consumption of animal products, and climate change. The current situation is irrational when you consider sheer numbers. In the relatively near future, considering the planet is projected to hold 10 billion people by 2050, it won’t be a question of whether we can continue to eat this way, but to what degree we will have to cut back on animal products. At this time almost half of Earth’s land surface is occupied by the industrial livestock system. Cows, chickens, and their ilk require a huge amount of food and a surprising amount of water when you factor in cleaning their dwellings and disinfecting equipment. Instead of feeding humans directly, we feed a large portion of what we grow to animals to fatten them up. Immense amounts of water and fertilizer are used to grow grain to feed animals. Twenty billion food animals certainly do eat and drink a lot, and make a huge mess besides.

Food animals are also requiring more and more space as people eat more meat. Meat consumption is projected to rise greatly over the next few decades as global income increases and people move toward Western consumption habits. Eighty percent of deforestation in the Amazon is due to beef production. One acre of land yields 250 pounds of beef, but the same area can produce 50,000 pounds of tomatoes or 40,000 pounds of potatoes. People around the world go hungry, but much of the planet is allotted to a system that yields relatively little food per acre. [1]

I felt so ignorant when I was listening to the recent talk; to make myself feel better, I told myself there must be powerful market and societal forces behind preventing word of this waste and irrationality from leaking out. I learned, of course, that there have been many news reports and studies on the issue over the years. Sustained media, public relations, and government campaigns, however, are absent in the U.S. The Chinese government is already on board, having put out the message “Less Meat, Less Heat,” referencing the fact that the meat industry contributes more greenhouse-gas emissions than all cars, buses, and airplanes combined. Less meat, less global warming.

In the United States, agriculture and livestock cultivation is a huge industry, contributing $992 billion to gross domestic product in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service–a 5.5 percent share. It goes without saying that the agriculture industry is well-represented among Washington lobbyists. Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma points out that Cargill and ADM together buy around a third of all the corn grown in America. They also sell pesticides and fertilizer, operate most of America’s grain elevators, ship most of the corn exported to other countries, feed corn to livestock and then slaughter the corn-fed animals. This represents a high degree of market concentration in many links of the supply chain. As Pollan puts it, Cargill and ADM also help write the rules of the game.

A recent study [2] discusses a combination of changes that can help mitigate the impact of the global food industry on the environment. Many proposed measures are beyond individual citizens’ control, but the authors’ recommendations on diet were encouraging. Once I got past the near-grieving quality of the realization that I should eat less meat, it occurred to me that this was one change I could make that would actually help slow down climate change, however infinitesimally. Normally it’s hard to feel anything but powerless, so this felt like a real improvement. Something must be in the air, because over the last few months I have spoken with at least a half-dozen people who were also cutting down on their meat consumption.

The study, which appeared in Nature on October 25 of this year, is unambiguous in its assertion that the “global food system is a major driver of climate change, land-use change and biodiversity loss, depletion of freshwater resources, and pollution of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems through nitrogen and phosphorus run-off from fertilizer and manure application.” The lead author, Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian, “I was surprised by the fact we need a combination of very ambitious options. We really need to push it to the edge of what is possible.” In other words, getting everyone in the world to adopt a flexitarian diet–one which drastically reduces meat and dairy consumption without eliminating it–will not even be enough. Sweeping changes are also required in areas of food loss and waste, and technology to increase production efficiency and reduce environmental impact. Notably, though, it is dietary changes that will have the most dramatic effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

Springmann recommends in the Guardian article that people pressure politicians to support environmental regulations; the study also recommends an “integrated” approach including media and education campaigns, consumer information and increased labeling, and fiscal measures such as taxation or subsidies, with an “important first step” being to align national food-based dietary guidelines with present evidence on healthy eating. It is quite frustrating that national guidelines can lag years behind current science.

There was an even more recent study [3] by the environmental group World Resources Institute which likewise recommended a variety of measures to mitigate the coming food and environmental crisis, including “shifting diets of high meat consumers toward plant-based foods,” accelerating voluntary reductions in fertility levels, increasing crop yields, spurring technological innovations such as modifying feed to cut down on enteric fermentation in cattle and reducing nitrogen runoff, and reducing food waste. The New York Times column that cites the new WRI study misleadingly points to the slightly earlier Springmann study as an example of researchers “in the past” describing consumers’ eating less meat and wasting less food as the “key” to a sustainable agriculture system. Both studies, however, actually have similar recommendations of a multi-pronged approach. As to dietary changes, meanwhile, the WRI study finds that “the large global rise in consumption of animal-based foods is both unnecessary and unhealthy” and in terms of environmental impact, “we find the potential of shifting diets [from meat to plants] to be even more consequential for GHG [greenhouse-gas] mitigation than commonly estimated.”

***

Habit is a powerful force when it comes to eating, and it seems our childhoods are never distant. Because we enjoyed hamburgers as kids, we still associate them with good times and continue to gravitate toward them. Because our parents made us eat vegetables, we do not look kindly on dietary recommendations we receive as adults. Social pressures, however subtle, also play a part in swaying our decisions. If everyone else is ordering a meat dish for dinner, it feels like the natural thing to do. I also wonder if emotions play a role in food choices. If it feels more indulgent to eat meat–and instead of eating with friends or family we are eating alone because of our work schedules, or a dwindling sense of the importance of communal meals–then we might insist on eating meat as a treat. Why deny ourselves when we are already denied of sufficient time to eat and people with whom to eat?

Not to mention if money is an issue, it can often be cheaper to eat factory-raised meat than a fancy vegetarian meal. Oddly, avoiding meat has now become a luxury, judging from the prices of vegetarian meals that I see at lunch places in New York compared to the price of a typical lunch at McDonald’s or Chick-Fil-A. I paid $12 yesterday for a vegetarian bean and rice bowl that infelicitously had raw wax beans and boiled sweet potatoes in it. A Big Mac meal costs only about half that.

Speaking of raw wax beans, it is imperative that healthy vegetarian cuisine taste good if flexitarianism or vegetarianism is going to catch on. No one is going to leave fried chicken behind for wax beans. But many typical American vegetarian options–pizza, macaroni and cheese, french fries–are laughably unhealthy. We need to look to other regions’ cuisines to find meatless dishes that are healthy and delicious.

So how much do we need to sacrifice to become a “flexitarian”? Is it farewell to Buffalo chicken wings forever? The prescription is actually not horrible: eat more fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes (this is good for you, anyway); limit red meat to once a week; limit poultry to a half-serving per day; limit fish and seafood to around one large serving per week. Intake of eggs should sadly be cut back to about two per week. One serving of dairy per day is in line with flexitarian guidelines.

There are many technological developments in the works that will slow climate change to an infinitely greater degree than my or your becoming flexitarian. These include projects, some of which are mentioned above, to increase efficiency of fertilizer use, develop crops that “fix” nitrogen in the soil and therefore need less fertilizer, improve the quality of corn feed to decrease enteric fermentation in ruminants [4], and decrease food waste and spoilage. That said, short of writing to my representatives to urge them to support these measures, I have no idea how to help these changes along. By changing my diet, I am at least eating with my eyes open.

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[1] See, for example, Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone, Eat for the Planet: Saving the World One Bite at a Time (2018).

[2] “Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits,” Springmann et al., Nature. Online access here

[3] “Creating a Sustainable Food Future: A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050,” Tim Searchinger et al., available here

[4] Cattle cannot properly digest corn, and its effect on their health and comfort, not to mention the environment, is devastating.  See Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006).

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