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Research shows that Gen Z is shifting to plant-based diets faster than older generations to avoid climate disaster. Will it be enough?
Words by Karen Asp
When 22-year-old Cienna Romahn turned 16, she went vegan. She’d already been vegetarian for 10 years, but what started as a moral obligation to the animals became an obligation to the planet. “While animal welfare is still important to me, the environmental impact of my food and lifestyle choices is the number one focus for how I choose to live,” says Romahn who lives in San Francisco and works as an events manager at Hooray Foods.
Although her name may not be as well known as fellow zoomer and climate and environmental activist Greta Thunberg, Romahn is one of the many young individuals hoping to fight climate change one bite at a time. In fact, she and her peers are proving that the adage “with age comes wisdom” holds little merit. In the wake of dire warnings from the EAT-Lancet Commission and the Chatham House that the world needs to shift to a plant-based diet to avoid climate destruction, young people are latching onto the message and changing their diets faster than other generations.
For proof, look no further than a 2020 YouGov survey which found that Millennials are more likely than other generations to say they’ve changed their diet, one reason being to reduce their impact on the planet. According to the survey, they’re also more likely than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers to have tried a vegetarian diet, and more Millennials have gone vegan than older generations. What’s more, a report from the NPD Group shows that the Gen Z and Millennial generations will be almost entirely responsible for the growth of dairy and meat alternatives through 2024.
Of course, the real question is how much impact their dietary changes will have. Is it even possible for one or two generations to make up for the damages caused by previous generations? The answer may be obvious, but that’s not making younger generations lose hope for their future.
Chantal Fülber, a 22-year-old in Frankfort, Germany, is not surprised that young people are leading the plant-based movement. “The older generation seems to not believe in a vegan diet and doubt that it’s beneficial in any way,” says Fülber, who after being vegetarian for nine years went vegan in 2019.
Plus, unlike their parents, younger generations have been hearing about climate change since day one. “That puts us in a unique position in which we’re constantly exposed to both crises and information on how to immediately respond and adapt, creating an ‘act now’ mentality among my generation,” Romahn says.
Given how dire the news about climate change is, that act-now mentality is critical, and while there are numerous lifestyle habits that can help, there’s no denying the power of a plant-based diet. “Plant-based diets are better for the environment than animal-based diets,” says Dana Ellis Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in California, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and author of Recipe for Survival. “Studies show we could save three-quarters of the land we use now for agricultural production, at least half the water we use, and over two-thirds of agricultural emissions by shifting to plant-based diets,” Hunnes says. Plus, much of the land that’s been used for agriculture (and specifically to grow animal feed) could be rewilded. All of these actions would lower greenhouse gases, a driving force behind climate change, she adds.
In fact, a model published in the journal PLoS Climate finds that even “phasing out animal agriculture over the next 15 years would have the same effect as a 68 percent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions through the year 2100,” according to a press release from Stanford University. The impact that shift would have is monumental, providing 52 percent of the net emission reductions necessary to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the minimum threshold required to avert “disastrous climate change,” the release goes on to say.
But it comes with one big caveat. “It’s important to recognize that the damage done by previous generations cannot be undone by mitigating emissions,” says Erica Dodds, Ph.D., CEO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration (F4CR) and sustainability, climate change, and eco-anxiety expert. “Of the trillion tons of excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, our annual emissions only make up five percent while 95 percent of the problem is the CO2 already in the atmosphere.” Removing the damage of previous generations will require removing this “legacy” CO2 from the environment as well as reducing new emissions, she adds.
Dodds’ comments suggest that dietary shifts by one generation, two at best, won’t be enough to fix the damage caused by previous generations. “There are eight billion people on the planet, and we can’t have only one-eighth of the world changing their diet and expect it to be enough,” Hunnes says. “It will help, but it’s everybody’s responsibility, and not enough people have changed their diet to make enough of a difference at this point.” Worse, estimates indicate that animal consumption is expected to go up—not down—which will only hurt the planet more.
It’s also unfair to ask the youth to make up for already existing damage, which is why Romahn has reframed how she sees her actions. “Although my generation accepts we’re facing a climate crisis that requires direct action from us, we’re more focused on not worsening it and minimizing our impact versus reversing the harm of past generations,” she says.
You don’t have to be 15 years old to feel like you have no control over the climate crisis, an emotional state often referred to as eco-anxiety, yet young people are particularly susceptible to it. “They can feel like there’s nothing they can do to make a difference and often believe that older generations are not taking the issue seriously,” Dodds says.
The antidote, of course, is action. “Taking actions that are within their control can help relieve this anxiety by giving them a sense of agency,” Dodds says.
That may be one reason younger generations are shifting their diet, a well-timed move now that plant-based products are hitting store shelves in record numbers. “That’s made going vegan or reducing intake from animal foods not only easier but also more exciting,” says Romahn, who holds out hope that her generation’s dietary changes will help quell climate change. “I’ve seen positive ongoing data about the impact of plant-based diets on certain carbon-intensive industries, like the milk industry, which has already been greatly impacted by our dietary changes.”
When these younger generations make the switch, they’re not only impacting climate change directly. They also, serve as a positive force for older individuals. “Older generations in particular associate vegetarianism and veganism with sacrifice, so seeing young people willing to give up so many mainstream and tasty food products in the name of climate restoration sends a powerful message,” Dodds says.
Being a role model is something that Fülber and Romahn embrace. “I want to empower older individuals to make small changes to their lifestyle,” Romahn says. “Whether switching their breakfast bacon to Hooray Foods’ plant-based bacon or mixing lentils into their ground beef, even the smallest changes can make a large impact when we empower enough people to make them.”
That’s a change Hunnes desperately hopes will happen, given that she has an eight-year-old son whose future hinges on what actions people take today. Although she cries frequently about these issues, she knows she can’t give up. “This is his future so I act and do what I can,” she says. “For many younger individuals, changing what they eat is something tangible they can do right now to make a difference—and it actually can make a difference.”
There is, after all, no planet B. You don’t need age on your side to understand that.
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