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Eating less meat is the most powerful tool we have to avoid climate destruction. Here are a few tips to help you eat more sustainably.
Words by Hemi Kim
Despite a food system that is stressed and failing, in part due to climate change, the world’s scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) remain optimistic that countries and people around the world can take collective action to slow the rate of climate change.
The IPCC is a group of 195 member countries whose governments seek to establish a common understanding of climate change, and all belong to either the United Nations or the World Meteorological Organization. IPCC reports are a way for scientists from around the world to tell policymakers in member countries what we know about climate change. With this knowledge in hand, policymakers have a better understanding of how member countries must change what they do, through laws and policies, to emit less of the gases that cause global warming into the atmosphere.
In their April 2022 climate change mitigation report, the IPCC climate scientists reviewed the academic literature on actions that people can take to limit or reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming. The report was authored by 278 authors from 65 countries, and it is the first IPCC report to consider “human behavior, consumption and choices” since the intergovernmental body was formed in 1988. The ultimate goal of climate change mitigation is to preserve the ecosystems that humans live within, and which support our livelihoods and communities.
People who advocate individual dietary change hope that as more and more people eat less and less meat it will become increasingly normal to reduce or eliminate meat from your diet. As a result, people will feel more social acceptance when changing their dietary habits toward eating less meat and find the transition easier. A culture shift that supports plant-rich diets for climate change may then ease climate-friendly decisions by policymakers and the introduction of the regulation we need to slow climate change further.
Converting land to livestock production, which causes deforestation, and the agricultural practices of animal farms, are both ways that the meat industry directly worsens climate change. When it comes to containing global warming, the greenhouse gases that are of greatest concern are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. Carbon dioxide is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and most greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels to run electric power plants, car and plane engines, and cooking devices and heating systems for buildings. However, about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and land use activities, mostly in the form of methane and nitrous oxide.
Farms that raise animals, especially cows, emit a large quantity of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Cows are ruminant animals who expel methane through burps as they digest their foods, in a process known as enteric fermentation. Methane is the main source of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Manure application, use of nitrogen in fertilizer, and nitrogen deposition are also major sources of nitrous oxide emissions in the agricultural sector.
Deforestation accounts for nearly half (45 percent) of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry, and land-use change combined. While trends differ by region, in the world as a whole forests are being lost. IPCC reports have identified agriculture as “a key driver of land-use change, causing both deforestation and wetland drainage.”
Converting land that hosted natural ecosystems like meadows or savanna into land used to raise crops such as maize and soybeans is a significant reason for this deforestation. Intensive farming is the main cause of this change, and much of this intensification is due to livestock farming. Land is being used to support increasing numbers of livestock and growing crops for the livestock to eat.
Individuals in the wealthiest 10 percent of households currently contribute 45 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution, writes Rebecca Leber for Vox. People whose incomes are $122,100 per year or higher are in the top 10 percent of the world’s population, according to Business Insider. These same individuals can and should take action to “limit consumption, especially of travel, food, and energy” to help solve the problem of climate change. Individual actions can reduce the amount of meat produced for the local market in the long run and “can have network effects.”
The logic behind the individualistic approach has some parallels to the push to get people to vote in a democratic election (minus the U.S. electoral college, misshapen voting districts, and history of suppression of Black voters). One person voting for Candidate A may only cancel out their next-door neighbor’s vote for Candidate B, but the combined efforts of voters overall are what allows one candidate to win the majority of votes.
Similarly, one person cutting out meat for one day a week might have their climate impact neutralized by someone who eats steak for dinner once a week. But there remains a small, permanent reduction in the meat being purchased by that one individual in their local market. And over time, that one person who abstains from eating meat may influence the people around them, serving as a role model for how culture can change.
Beyond the impact we can have in our personal lives, as professionals, we might have sway over more than our individual lunch plans and can have an even greater impact on reducing meat consumption, especially if we are event planners, food suppliers, or cafeteria service providers, for example. When larger and larger groups of people in the Global North take up the cause of eating less meat, this dietary shift can reduce greenhouse gases and the suffering resulting from climate change in the Global South and throughout the world.
Members of the scientific community agree that eating more plant-rich foods and less meat is a tried-and-true way to lower global greenhouse gas emissions. The “we” in this effort to eat less meat should start with individuals in the richest 10 percent by income. The moral imperative for wealthy people to move quickly in taking personal action on climate change exists because the wealthiest are the world’s biggest polluters. Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent of the world’s population by income, only contributes 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Eating less meat can help reduce pressure on forests and land used to grow animal feed, which in turn protects biodiversity, the earth’s ecosystems, and people living in poverty who are bearing the brunt of climate change. Eating less meat means eating foods that are plant-based rather than those that are animal-based. That means avoiding eating foods like dairy products (e.g., milk, cheese, yogurt), beef (or other ruminant animal products), poultry (e.g., chicken, duck, eggs), pork (e.g., bacon, sausages), and fish. Reducing meat consumption can look like eating half as much meat as often as one normally would, or going full vegetarian or vegan.
The IPCC describes shifting to “sustainable healthy diets” as a strategy for addressing climate change that also considers all aspects of personal health. This shift is possible in many areas of the world, but it’s important to be able to take into consideration community-specific norms. The shift may need to be facilitated by putting into place policies, incentives, and awareness-raising campaigns to induce change in consumer behavior. One way to start this shift is through a “contract and converge” model where wealthier populations that are eating too much meat reduce their consumption, while policymakers agree to increase the consumption of nutritious foods in populations that are poorer and nutrient deficient.
Many interventions can help to reduce meat consumption, including having meatless days in school cafeterias, replacing beef with beans, changing where the vegetarian options are located on a menu to make them more visible, offering cooking classes to teach people to make plant-based foods, and providing healthy-eating counseling.
You might want to learn more about the IPCC report on climate change mitigation. You can start by watching explainer videos on YouTube such as this one by Zentouro and ClimateAdam. The report is also directly available on the IPCC website. The following recommendations for individual actions come from the IPCC’s climate mitigation report’s FAQ:
The FAQ also encourages societies to embrace the uncertainty and ambiguity that comes with the task of curbing global warming. One way to do this is to form new narratives about what is important to us, whether through the collective actions of social movements, advertising, or the entertainment industry, to help make new and improved paths towards a healthy and sustainable future.
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