Yes, Eating Less Meat is Effective Climate Action

April 25, 2022

The third rail of American politics is not Social Security, it’s hamburgers.

Vox, April 22, 2022:

Over the past decade, the basic facts of how we produce meat and its harms to society — its acceleration of the climate crisis, the torture of tens of billions of animals, hazardous workplace conditions for meatpacking workers — have begun to enter the realm of public consciousness. 

That’s led, in part, to a quarter of Americans — perhaps that includes you — telling pollsters they’re eating less meat (even as US consumption rises). But in a world with a population nearing 8 billion, does one person changing how they eat even make a difference for animal welfare or the climate?

Some critics say no, arguing that putting the onus on individual consumer choice is a dangerous distraction from systemic change. “We are not going to fix the climate crisis by shaming largely powerless individuals or getting men in the west to eat more plant-based burgers; it can be fixed only through systemic change,” wrote Guardian columnist Arwha Mahdawi. In this line of thinking, policy, not personal choice, is what will ultimately move the needle.

The systemic change critics have a point. Changing corporate and governmental policy is no small feat, but it’s likely a more plausible path toward meaningfully reducing greenhouse gas emissions than the Sisyphean task of convincing one person at a time to change their lifestyle.

But one worry I have is that this mindset may be pushing things too far — to the point of dismissing the value of any individual action. And it might even obscure an obvious fact: that there’s not really a trade-off here.

Jonathan Foley, a climate scientist and executive director of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit that analyzes and advocates for climate solutions, says it’s not an either/or choice. “I just never understood that false dichotomy,” he told me. “It’s inaccurate, it’s wrong, and it leaves a lot of tools off the table. And I think it makes a lot of people feel really depressed. If our hope is tied up in the US Senate to save us, and that’s it, we’re screwed.”

It’s easy to feel exhausted thinking about all that we should do to live more sustainably, but not all actions have an equal impact. Choosing just one or two of the more impactful ones — and not worrying too much about the rest — might reduce some of that stress. And according to Project Drawdown, the two most effective individual actions are food-related: reducing food waste and eating a “plant-rich” diet — one that contains less meat and more plant-based ingredients than the typical American diet. 

Just eating a plant-rich diet will reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than if you were to install solar panels on your home, switch to an electric vehicle (or public transit), compost all of your food scraps, and reduce your plastic use, according to the group. 

“When it comes to individual action, it’s not a guilt trip — saying we’re the ones responsible for this,” Foley says. “That’s not really fully true or fair. So instead of a guilt trip, call it a power trip. We have power at the individual level.”

Encouraging individual action also gives people who want to effect change an outlet in the face of a polarized political system — one that threatens to subsume food politics into our broader culture wars. 

“If you think it’s hard to get Congress or the White House to do anything about greenhouse gas emissions from energy, try talking about beef,” Foley says. “Politicians are terrified of talking about this issue … It’s completely unreachable, even to rural Democrats. The leadership is going to come from states and cities, from culture, from movements, from influencers — it’s going to come from conversations and individual actions.” He thinks better plant-based food technology will play a role, too.

Some of this change is happening. Public schools and hospitals are serving more plant-based meals and around a dozen states have banned cages for some farmed animals. Big food companies are also phasing out cages from their supply chains while adding in more plant-based food, and the alternative protein sector is beginning to receive government funding.

The average American consumes about 25 land animals per year — 23 chickens raised for meat, a third of a pig, a tenth of a cow, and about three-quarters of a turkey (plus a small amount of duck and other species).

Add in aquatic animals — an estimated 12 fish and 137 shellfish (mostly shrimp) — and the number skyrockets up to roughly 174 animals. (The number would more than double if you count other fish affected, like “bycatch” — sea animals accidentally caught and tossed back into the ocean — and the fish caught to feed farmed fish, according to Harish Sethu, a data scientist and author of the Counting Animals blog.) 

So, if around 174 animals are farmed and fished a year for the average American diet, does that mean if someone cuts all animal products from their diet, 174 fewer animals will be farmed? The answer is a bit complicated.

“It may be hard to see the consequences of our decisions, but let there be no doubt, each purchase decision matters,” wrote agricultural economists Jayson Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood in their 2011 book Compassion, by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare. “To deny this fact is to contend that every human becoming a vegan would have no impact on the number of livestock raised.” 

Lusk is realistic about just how much individual choices matter. “Any individual person is such a small piece of the overall story that me removing myself from the market has a very, very, very small effect on price,” he told me recently. But “if you go from the average [amount of chicken consumption] to zero, it’s a non-trivial consequence on the number of chickens that are out there … so maybe that’s the good news.”

Vox, Nov. 18, 2021:

But an increasing number of researchersfood critics, and environmental groups are casting doubt on these types of claims, warning that faux meat production still relies on industrial farming practices. They claim that we don’t know enough about these relatively new products to say for certain if they’re better for the environment than the meat they are trying to replace.

One recent whitepaper from an environmental NGO states that the above claims from faux meat companies “are unproven, and some clearly untrue.” A sustainability analyst quoted in the New York Times goes further, claiming that the companies’ secrecy about their production methods means that “We don’t feel we have sufficient information to say Beyond Meat is fundamentally different from JBS.” (JBS is the world’s largest meat producer).

But years of research on the environmental impact of food make one thing clear: Plant proteins, even if processed into imitation burgers, have smaller climate, water, and land impacts than conventional meats. Apart from environmental impact, reducing meat production would also reduce animal suffering and the risk of both animal-borne disease and antibiotic resistance. The criticisms against the new wave of meatless meat appear to be more rooted in broad opposition to food technology rather than a true environmental accounting — and they muddy the waters in the search for climate solutions at a time when clarity is sorely needed.

2 Responses to “Yes, Eating Less Meat is Effective Climate Action”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    “It’s easy to feel exhausted thinking about all that we should do to live more sustainably, but not all actions have an equal impact. Choosing just one or two of the more impactful ones — and not worrying too much about the rest — might reduce some of that stress.”

    This. Thisthisthisthisthis.

    It’s fortunate for me that I can positively enjoy eating a diet that is lower-meat than was my prior habit. I have the further advantage of being able to afford making some of the earlier and/or costlier transitions (getting an EV in 2014, swapping out my gas appliances in 2021) in the hopes I will help goose the related industries.

    One issue I have is that preventing and slowing climate change isn’t really amenable to charitable donation: It’s more of an issue of backstopping some of the damage in terms of hunger, displacement and disaster relief while large portions of society are still ignoring or accelerating the problem.

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