Stepping up to the plate: how taking a day off meat can be a part of climate action

Addressing animal agriculture’s impact on climate will be key to slowing climate change

Animal agriculture contributes 14.5% of all of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Source: Pexels

The climate community suffered a blow on June 1 with President Trump’s ill-informed and widely-criticized decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. Days later, those who care about the future of our planet found renewed strength and inspiration with the outpouring of commitment to climate action coming from leaders at the state and local level.

One looming question emerged: how can individuals join the climate fight? Here’s one solution - start with the food on our plates.

Our food system plays an important role in climate change and environmental degradation. Food production is a major driver of deforestation, biodiversity loss, water use and pollution and climate change. In fact, animal agriculture makes up 14.5 percent of all of man-made greenhouse gas emissions — more than the vehicle exhaust from all cars worldwide. With demand for meat and dairy expected to skyrocket by 2050, rethinking how we eat can make a big difference in fighting climate change.

Diet advice is a tricky subject, and adding in the environmental impact of food can make it a whole lot more confusing. After all, there are many stages to consider along the farm-to-fork journey. Did the farmland used to be forest that stored carbon and provided habitat for pollinators? Were large amounts of fertilizer or manure applied to crops, or did the farmer plant cover crops to make soil more fertile? How much was the soil tilled during planting or harvest? Were the crops transported by truck, train, or plane, and did they need to be refrigerated during that journey? The emissions intensity of food also depends on methodology — for instance, climate impact can be measured by weight of food produced or by ounce of protein produced.

Source: NRDC

Going down the rabbit hole of food sustainability can seem endless, but luckily, there are a few golden rules that can make climate-friendly eating a lot simpler.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, not all foods are created equal.

Broadly speaking, animal-based foods like meat and dairy are big climate culprits. The good news for meat-lovers is that helping the climate doesn’t mean sacrificing your favorite foods or lifestyle. Even small shifts away from meat and dairy can make a difference. World Resources Institute calculates that switching one-third of your beef consumption for beans or lentils can lower your diet’s climate footprint by 16 percent.

In other words, eating beans or lentils instead of beef just twice a week makes a big impact. World Meat Free Day is a great excuse to try out a day of plant-based cuisine — and maybe find some new favorite meals and recipes to enjoy on a regular basis.

Meatless Impossible Burger at Momofuku Nishi in NYC | Source: Bridgette Burkholder

Swapping out a regular burger with one made from black beans or other veggie-proteins significantly reduces the carbon footprint of your meal. Red meat from cows and sheep generally has a greater climate impact than poultry and fish, because the animals’ digestive systems produce methane, a potent climate-warming gas. In fact, beef and milk production contribute around six percent and three percent of global emissions, respectively! Eating less meat, especially red meat, can help combat climate change and can also be a part of a healthy diet, by substituting meat proteins with protein-rich plant-based foods like nuts and legumes. And let’s not forget that vegetables have protein too.

Additionally, forest and pasture are converted to cropland in order to grow feed for livestock. This type of land use change releases the carbon dioxide stored by trees, plants, and the soil. Production of crops for animal feed often involves the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, and when fertilizer is not absorbed completely by the plants, it emits nitrous oxide, a gas with nearly 300 times the climate impact of carbon dioxide.

Source: Climate Nexus

And it’s good for human health, too. Globally, eating more fruits and veggies and less red could save an estimated $735B per year in health-care costs and reduce global mortality by up to 10%. Plant-based foods like beans and lentils are health-promoting, while meat and dairy foods are often high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which is linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers.

How we eat determines how the world is used, according to farmer and conservationist Wendell Berry. This truth means all of us have the potential to be a powerful force for change. Ultimately, our most fundamental daily choices drive a system that contributes nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Whether you’re appalled by Trump’s Paris Agreement decision or encouraged by state and local climate action, know that we, as individuals, have the power to limit carbon emissions and the threats of climate change. And we can start the next time we sit down for a meal.


This blog was written by Lauren Wolahan. She works at the intersection of food, agriculture and climate change. Find her on Twitter @_foodprints.