There is no silver bullet to solving climate change. In a recent New York Times story about the rate of climate change acceleration, the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization said, “The only solution is to get rid of fossil fuels in power production, industry and transportation.” We can’t just stop our reliance on fossil fuels tomorrow, so what can we do in the meantime?
I recently read Jonathan Safran Foer’s nonfiction book “We Are the Weather,” which is about the link between climate change and diet. His book, while well-written and filled with eye-opening data about the environmental effects caused by our dietary choices, left me feeling hopeless. His solution is something we’ve all heard before: to eat less meat. I was skeptical that could ever happen as a collective world, so I became curious about the ways we can slow climate change besides “eating less meat.”
But after speaking to a number of experts about the role of our diet in climate change, one thing became clear: Nothing is as impactful as reducing your meat consumption. If you care at all about slowing climate change, it’s important to minimize the amount of meat you’re eating. Here’s how to do it and why making these changes are feasible. Everything might not be as hopeless as it appears.
Reducing your consumption of animal products really can help slow the effects of climate change. Here’s how.
If you look at the meat you’re consuming strictly from an environmental perspective, one thing becomes clear: not all meat has the same footprint.
“We’ve estimated that if Americans were to cut a quarter-pound of beef from their diet a week ― that’s the average of a hamburger ― it’d be like taking 10 million cars off the road for a year.”
“There are big differences in the emission intensities between ruminant animals ― beef being the dominant one in the U.S. ― and monogastric animals like pork and chicken,” said Martin Heller, a research specialist at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems. “The amount of food you get per unit of feed to raise those animals is one contributor. Another big contributor for ruminant animals is enteric methane, a byproduct of their natural digestion and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.” Cow burps, as enteric methane is also known, are a huge threat to us all, because truth is stranger than fiction.
Millions of animals are raised each year specifically for food. And while monogastric animals do have an impact on greenhouse gases, we focus our attention on cows because they create the largest impact. “When you’re talking about climate change, the best thing people can do is eat less beef, because that has the single biggest impact by far of any food item,” said Sujatha Bergen, the health campaigns director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
How to make an impact with every meal you eat.
Here’s the biggest surprise: You don’t have to become a vegetarian or vegan to make a change. “We’ve estimated that if Americans were to cut a quarter-pound of beef from their diet a week ― that’s the average of a hamburger ― it’d be like taking 10 million cars off the road for a year,” Bergen said.
The innovative Climate Conscious Dining campaign at Duke University is encouraging students to think about small changes they can make in their diet. “We’re intentionally making the connection between the food we eat, climate change and our health,” said Marcus Carson, the assistant director for sustainability and quality control at Duke Dining. “It’s not just saying, ‘eat less meat,’ but talking about its health implications and making it more approachable.”
It may feel highly unlikely that Americans could ever collectively consume less meat, but changes in dietary habits regarding animal products are already happening. Once a staple of the American kitchen table, milk consumption has been decreasing steadily since the 1970s, with dairies closing up shop in large numbers, partially due to changing tastes and a plethora of appealing substitutes in plant-based milks.
“It’s absolutely possible for people to fight climate change with their forks,” Bergen said. “It’s one of the most accessible ways, as well. There’s an enormous opportunity to make a small shift that ― if aggregated over the entire U.S. population ― can make a big difference.” One of the roadblocks is asking people to give up consuming food they love. But restaurants are ramping up plant-based options, making it easier than ever before.
Fast-casual chain Panera announced last month that it aims to have plant-based options on 50% of its menu by 2021. Part of that is a result of customer demand. “In the past several years, we’ve heard our guests say, ‘We want more plant-based options,’” said Sara Burnett, VP of wellness and food policy at Panera. “In particular, 47% of our guests said they want to decrease their consumption of meat.”
Panera’s customers cited their own health, climate change and animal welfare as reasons to make that choice. Those beliefs may have led to the brand’s most successful menu item launch in years: the grain bowl. Burnett said 25% are being ordered without any animal protein. One person opting not to eat meat at Panera won’t have an effect on climate change, but Panera has 10 million customers each week. If they begin opting out in greater numbers, ordering dishes that just happen to not include meat, the effects will be felt in the restaurant’s supply chain.
Fast-casual chain Modern Market has seen Beyond Meat sausage sell briskly when included on creatively topped pizzas, and the plant-based entree Buddha Bowl become a top seller, according to chef and director of culinary operations Nate Weir. The restaurant’s treatment of animal protein is even more progressive. “It’s been our ethos to think about protein as a complement ― not the star of the plate,” Weir said. “Our [seasonal] pizza Summer Heat included fresh-shucked corn and a teaspoon of bacon as a complementary flavor.” Considering the chain’s growing popularity, it appears to be an opinion its customers agree with.
If Americans reduce their meat consumption by one hamburger a week, real differences can be made with regard to climate change. We make about 200 decisions about food per day. The choices we make at our next meal will help determine our future.