Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Diets & Climate Change: Instead of Meat Elimination, We Should Be Aiming for Meat Reduction

By Elizabeth RenePublished August 29, 2021

Where discussions around a completely meat-free diet tend to turn some away from the idea of more environmentally-friendly food choices, it is pivotal we begin including meat reduction in con
Given that nearly a quarter of all climate change emissions can be attributed to unsustainable practices within the food production industry, it is no doubt that American consumers must begin looking towards to the food on their plates as a viable climate solution. Only where discussions around a completely meat-free diet tend to turn some away from the idea of more environmentally-friendly food choices, it is pivotal we begin including meat reduction in conversations around food and its overall impact on the worsening climate change crisis.

Following President Joe Biden’s recent commitment to cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, Fox News and other news programs were quick to falsely report that Biden’s climate plan required Americans to cut “90% of red meat” from their diets by holding them to “one burger per month.” Biden quickly responded to these claims, clarifying that his plan has nothing to do with diet restrictions but rather aims to recommit the United States to the 2015 Paris agreement. In addition, Biden plans to double the United States’ original carbon reduction pledge. However, given that the greenhouse gas emissions produced by livestock production equates to that produced by transposition, shouldn’t a reduction in meat be considered nonetheless? 

Knowing the extent by which the food on our plates contributes to the carbon within our atmosphere is hardly a new phenomenon, particularly as it relates to animal agriculture. Even before animals themselves emit greenhouse gases through their digestion and waste, carbon is released during the conversion of nearly 80% of US land to the grazing and cultivation of animal feed. Coupled with the extensive energy required to maintain livestock is the energy required to transport processed animal products across different parts of the country and globe. 

It is therefore no surprise that nearly 25% of all climate change emissions can be attributed to environmentally unsustainable practices within the food production industry, where nearly twice of the emissions are produced by cars. Considering how much food production contributes to the worsening climate crisis, one must also consider how different kinds of foods generate different amounts of emissions. While one serving of beef can equate to 330 grams of carbon emissions—or driving a car for roughly three miles—a serving of fish equates to merely 40 grams of emissions. Of course, this doesn’t even compare to swapping for entirely meatless protein, such as in lentils, which would involve a virtually carbon-free footprint production process. 

There’s no doubt that conversations surrounding the impact of our diets on the climate crisis have grown in recent times, which can largely be attributed to the increasing number of Americans committing to meat-free diets. However, while the United States has experienced a 600% increase of consumers identifying as vegan, the overall percentage in the country remains quite low. From the years 2014 to 2017, the percentage of vegans increased from 1% of the population to a mere 6%. Furthermore, while there has been a 19% drop in the total amount of red meat consumed among Americans over the last decade, we continue to hold one of the largest per capita meat consumption levels globally

While plant-based proteins unquestionably carry less of an environmental burden compared to that of animal products, many Americans view the issue of meat consumption from an all-or-nothing approach. Specifically, many see no option between either ridding their diet of all things meat-related or continuing to consume twice as much as the recommended red meat serving for a health-prescribed diet. As a result, the idea that reducing meat in one’s diet can be equally as effective as becoming meat-free is overlooked. 

In acknowledging that full meat elimination turns many Americans away from altering their diets (even for the sake of the climate), we should prioritize meat reduction instead of meat elimination. Oftentimes, as is particularly seen in the United States, meat consumption tends to be tied to cultural upbringing. For instance, in stark contrast with the heavy pork and beef diets in Latin American countries, Mediterranean diets are much richer in plant-based foods and still contain meat. In fact, if everyone were to switch to a Mediterranean-type diet, composed more of fish and beans, pollution would be cut by the equivalent of a billion cars per year.  

Ultimately, people’s willingness to change their day-to-day practices for the long-term sake of our environment is directly tied to convenience. Although it would be a lot to ask every individual to install solar panels or purchase an electric car, for example, it is both feasible and equally impactful to recommend people to occasionally opt for food options containing fewer carbon footprints. Moreover, swapping a steak for a plant-based source would likely save money, coinciding with saving resources. Whether it’s eliminating 90% of the meat in one’s diet, or even substituting for a smaller portion of beef, society must begin to realize how different diets bear different environmental costs. Ultimately, where any level of meat consumption can work to exacerbate the ongoing climate crisis, any level of meat reduction can very well work to mitigate it as well.  

Works Cited

Photo by Tyler Varsell