We’re celebrating our second Earth Day in the midst of a global pandemic, which, in just one year, has redefined the word “normal” for us all. Yet COVID-19’s disruption has also afforded us an opportunity to hit the reset button and establish a resilient, sustainable new normal. We’ve long counted on environmental groups to model what this sustainable future looks like—one where single-use plastics are rare and electric vehicles are business as usual. But what about our fragile food system, which has all but crumbled under the pandemic’s weight? Does the way the climate movement eats line up with its own sustainable values?
Leading up to this year’s celebration of our planet, Better Food Foundation (BFF) set out to answer these questions by approaching leading environmental organizations from coast to coast. We asked how they—the face of the sustainability movement—set a positive example for climate-friendly dining and invited them to center climate-friendly plant-based foods on their event and conference menus. Our findings: dozens of environmental organizations already embrace plant-forward foods as part of their climate change strategy, and more are taking steps towards supporting climate-friendly dining.
We’ve long known that meat and dairy spew out greenhouse gases by the millions of tons. If cows were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter. And according to the journal Science, meat, aquaculture, dairy, and eggs contribute about 57 percent of food’s greenhouse gas emissions but only provide 18 percent of our calories.
Crucially, a global shift away from meat, eggs, and dairy isn’t just a nice gesture to the planet; it’s essential for a livable future. The EAT-Lancet Commission warns that even if net-zero carbon is achieved for every other industry by 2050 if the food system remains unchanged, we will still fail to achieve the Paris Agreement. Fortunately, a new study in Nature revealed that a worldwide plant-forward food system could likely keep us within a 1.5 ºC temperature rise because of increased “carbon sequestration through ecosystem restoration.”
Animal agriculture is also taking an immense toll on our already dwindling natural resources. Globally, an estimated 27 percent of the water “footprint” of humanity is attributable to meat and dairy production. Without these industries, we could cut worldwide farmland use by more than 75 percent—an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union, and Australia combined—and still feed the world.
Now, in the wake of slaughterhouse shutdowns and forced “depopulation” of millions of animals brought about by the coronavirus creeping into our workforce, we’re discovering just how close to the edge our meat-centric food system is teetering (even ag giant Tyson Foods admitted last spring that the meat industry was “breaking”). The pandemic has revealed that replacing our old way of eating—menus dominated by cheap meat from factory farms that are hotbeds for disease and fast-paced slaughterhouses that abuse workers—with a new norm is more urgent than ever.
Climate organizations are seen by the entire world as models for sustainable behavior and therefore are key to this societal shift. We discovered that many of these organizations, like Greenpeace, Acterra, Oceanic Preservation Society, NYU’s Department of Environmental Studies, Rainforest Alliance, and more, are trailblazing the way forward by serving only plant-based meals at their events and meetings.
However, transforming people’s attitudes about meat-eating can be hard—so it’s no surprise that many are wary about facing stigma and push-back associated with dietary change campaigns. That’s where a flexible strategy like DefaultVeg can be helpful. DefaultVeg works by making plant-based meals the default menu option while giving people the choice to opt into meals with animal products. The strategy is easy to implement and enormously effective: Case studies find that this simple behavioral “nudge” can increase the selection of the plant-based options by up to 80 percent, without sacrificing diner choice. And in terms of its climate impact, we did the math: switching 1,000 meals to DefaultVeg saves 1,600 kg CO2eq, an amount of pollution equivalent to driving an average passenger vehicle 4,140.9 miles.
The organizations and institutions are proving that sustainable menus can be inclusive, healthy, and delicious—not restrictive—by adopting DefaultVeg or similar plant-forward food policies include Feedback Global, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Harvard’s Office for Sustainability, the U.S. Climate Action Network, and more.
Defaulting to plant-based meals is one of the most substantive and impactful solutions we can make to address climate change on an institutional level, and it starts with our environmental leaders. Yet despite these dozens of forward-thinking policies, two-thirds of the nation’s top 10 environmental organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, and others, haven’t yet publicly committed to animal product reduction.
If you work or volunteer with a leading environmental group, department, or institution that’s not on this list, you can help them turn Earth Day into “Earth Year” by aligning their food choices with their sustainable values.
Laura is the Campaigns Director for Better Food Foundation, which runs DefaultVeg.