Not all personal environmental choices are created equal, and this week we’re talking about one of the best things we individuals can do to reduce our climate impact. Real heavy-hitter stuff.
That said, you might not like it.
But I know the people who read this newsletter aren’t afraid of a challenge. So here we go: if we want fewer greenhouse gases, more efficient food use, less deforestation, cleaner water, and better health, most people — notably people who eat a Western diet — should eat less meat and dairy. My BFFs at Project Drawdown identify eating a plant-rich diet as the #4 climate change intervention overall, and the #2 thing we can accomplish on a personal level. (Remember, wasting less food is the #1 thing we can do individually.) They note that eating a vegan diet could reduce business as usual emissions by 70%, and a vegetarian one by 63%.
These dietary changes are urgent: a 2018 study in the journal Nature noted that to keep warming to two degrees — a rise that brings some terrible consequences — an American needs to eat 90% less beef, 60% less milk, and eat four to six times the beans and pulses.
Now, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that dietary choices are complicated, psychologically loaded, and different bodies have different needs. Culture, tradition, availability, and affordability all play a role. Diet is not one size fits all. No one, not even me or Oprah, can tell you exactly what your diet should look like. I just want us to learn the facts and test our own assumptions, habits, and practices to find something that’s sustainable for each of us (and obviously for the planet). Personally, I still eat some animal products, though my partner and I have been cutting back on them significantly. More on that shortly!
First let’s talk about why meat takes such a heavy climate toll:
77% of the world’s agricultural land goes to raising and feeding livestock, but in the end it only gives us 18% of our calories, and 37% of our protein.
Roughly 80% of deforestation is to clear land for livestock grazing.
Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gases: about the same as emissions from all the cars, trucks, ships, airplanes altogether.
Cows (and other ruminants like sheep) are gassy AF, and sadly their burps are even more noxious than your bro’s: the methane they belch is 28x more destructive than CO2, and the average cow can produce 200 kg of methane per year. In fact, if cows were a country, they’d have third-highest emissions, behind the U.S. and China.
Habitat loss is the main driver behind of current mass extinctions: a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calls what’s happening “biological annihilation.”
This doesn’t even take into the consideration of the cruelty and pollution of factory farming, where animals spend their lives in horrifically small cages, often live in their own poo, can’t do instinctive things like forage or mate, and often require preventative antibiotics, which fuel antibiotic resistance in humans. The horror stories are endless: chickens are debeaked so they don’t attack each other or themselves, top-heavy turkeys would collapse under their own weight if they got a stay of execution.
If this is giving you some vegan panic (or vegan smugness), let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge a few other things:
Meat can be managed sustainably, as many Indigenous groups have for millennia.
In certain parts of the world meat and dairy are the most reliable food source and prevent hunger and poverty.
Many animals graze on land that wouldn’t be suitable for agriculture.
Animals (and their manure) can also be an important part of a diversified small farm.
Okay . . . so . . . where do we go from here?
If we want to lessen the climate chaos that is coming within our lifetimes, people in wealthy nations need to challenge ourselves to eat less meat and dairy, and then once that becomes normal, challenge ourselves again. This change is essential, doable, and that has an immediate impact.
Maybe you want to go all the way and give up all animal products, and good on you! There are great health associations a vegan diet — including lower rates of cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and certain cancers. Just make sure you’re getting enough vitamin B-12, iron, and calcium, and supplement as required.
If you’re not ready to leap into the gelatinous embrace of the flax egg, there are still lots of positive choices you can make as an omnivore.
Eat better-quality meat.
There’s a lot of greenwashing happening around meat these days, and it can be hard to tell what kind of life (and death) your animal had. A few guidelines that might help:
At the supermarket, avoid the cheapest possible meat. The one that doesn’t even have a shiny happy farmer face on it or claim to be free of anything. That’s your factory farm special. The others might not be a lot better, but this is one easy distinction.
Whenever possible, buy from the farmer. That way you can know how something was raised and you’re supporting people who do essential and undervalued work. Good butchers can also tell you the origin of your meat.
Choose local over imported. Though the distance food travels is a surprisingly small part of its carbon footprint (more on that in another newsletter), there’s more than transportation emissions at play. For example, Brazilian beef can have 10x the climate impact as American beef, largely because Brazil is burning rainforest for pasture.
This is going to be more expensive, and perhaps isn’t possible for some. But if you’re eating less meat overall, spending on higher quality protein might not affect the bottom line.
Eat lower-carbon meat.
Not all animals are created equal, carbon-wise. I love this chart from Oxford University, which shows that you could eat eight times the poultry to get the same carbon impact as a cow. You’ll also see that milk and cheese are, like Britney Spears, not that innocent. And look at those sneaky shrimp! Whatever you’ve heard about almonds — the water they need, the bees that have to be trucked in to pollinate them — they’re still a much better choice for protein than almost anything on the list.
Beef has become a special treat in our house, one we have maybe once a month. If that seems like a recipe for misery, take heart in the science that suggests having less of a thing may cause us to appreciate it more.
Eat smaller portions of meat.
Our obsession with protein vies with our obsession with hydration for 21st century dietary fixations. But the average American is actually getting twice the protein they need. Consider cutting back the amount of meat in your recipe and see how it tastes and how you feel. Chances are it’ll be totally fine. Sometimes all you need is a little meaty umami that can come from homemade scrap stock or something like saved bacon fat.
Indulge in some pre-dumpster delights.
Though we’ve cut back on the animal products we buy, I consider diverting dairy from landfill with an app like Flashfood to be a freebie. Remember, it’s just a best before date, and especially with something like yogurt or cheese, you have several days’ grace. I just ate a piece of fancy cheddar that I “rescued” — a $9 cheese for $0.99. Sometimes it’s delicious to take one for the planet.
Try some fake meat.
There are all kinds of meat substitutes on the market, from tofurkey to the sexy-sounding texturized vegetable protein (TVP). I wouldn’t make any highly processed meat replacements a dietary staple, but now and again they can help with a craving. I find Beyond Meat ground “beef” and sausages particularly good, and one of these burgers apparently clocks in at 1/10th the emissions of a quarter-pounder.
Designate animal-free meals.
After my partner and I listened to Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather over the holidays (living with me is fun and festive!), we decided to try his recommended climate intervention diet: no animal products before dinner. Since we eat leftovers most days for lunch, in our version we have meat or eggs two to three dinners a week and for their corresponding lunches, and usually indulge in some eggy breakfasts on the weekend. Foer argues that this diet could actually have a lower impact than vegetarianism (remember how high dairy was on the Oxford chart), plus it means you don’t have to perish with longing at the sight of a cheese platter or create a stir at Seder. The Vegan Before Six (VB6) diet seems to be gaining momentum (it even has a Mark Bittman cookbook), and we’ve been living with our variation on it for a couple months with no real issues. (Though I do cheat and put milk in my coffee. Come @ me.)
Now maybe your family will mutiny at the prospect of a tofu scramble, but see what’s realistic for you. My friend J is the queen of keto (the diet that is low on carbs and sugar, heavy on fat), but she and her husband committed to having Meatless Mondays. And if the keto folks can do it . . .
A handy guide to dietary emissions reductions, courtesy the NYT.
Learn some new recipes.
For me, the hardest part of cutting back on animal products was finding enough new recipes that satisfied everyone involved and didn’t involve spiralizing a damn thing. I’m slowly rebuilding my recipe resources, but here are a few selections I keep in regular rotation:
Smitten Kitchen’s Everyday Yellow Dal
A Pinch of Yum’s Coconut Curry Soup
Cookie & Kate’s Thai Spiced Rice Bowls
Well Fed Flat Broke’s Peanutty Soba Noodles with Kale
Oh She Glows’ African Peanut Stew (I like to omit the kale and put the whole thing in the blender)
Oh She Glows’ Thai Crunch Salad
Oh She Glows’ Lemon-Tahini dressing (included in the Protein Power bowl recipe). I’m obsessed it with it: a great thing for dipped veggies or to round out a salad or to just eat with your finger (or so I hear . . .)
Roast some vegetables (potatoes, beets, carrots, onion, broccoli, peppers — whatever you need to clear out) and eat with homemade hummus
Keep in mind that vegan and vegetarian recipes sometimes take a little longer to prepare (more chopping and flavour building) but all all of the above are quick enough to make on a weeknight. (I’ve also found a two-cup food processor to be a useful tool.)
Maybe contrary to Bart’s song, you can win friends with salad — at least these salads. And you might just make a difference while you’re at it.
Animal agriculture is a major driver of climate change (and also species extinction, water pollution, and other ecological horrors).
The second most effective thing we can do as individuals is to eat fewer animals, especially beef and lamb.
To amp up your impact, designate certain meals or days that are animal-product free. Even going vegan part-time can have big benefits.
Michael Pollan’s seven-word slogan distills it well: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Learn more to level up
Some of the clearest and most useful information I’ve encountered on diet and climate change is in the interactive New York Times piece “Your Food and Climate Change Questions, Answered.” I highly recommend it. They also have a quiz so you can assess how your current diet contributes to the climate crisis.
Julia Moskin’s “What Omnivores Get Wrong about Vegetarian Cooking” is also a worthwhile read if you’ll be preparing more plants.
“The Meat-Lover’s Guide to Eating Less Meat” in the New York Times.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather is a nuanced philosophical and psychological exploration of climate change, diet, and why we do and don’t act. We found it almost uncomfortably persuasive.
If you eat industrial meat (that is, most meat in stores and restaurants), Food Inc. is necessary viewing.
Though I haven’t watched it, I know at least three people who have gone vegan after watching The Game Changers documentary on Netflix.
Wins of the Week!
“When a radical change is needed, many argue that it is impossible for individual actions to incite it, so it’s futile for anyone to try. This is exactly the opposite of the truth: the impotence of individual actions is a reason for everyone to try.”
— Jonathan Safran Foer, We Are the Weather
Here are some things you wonderful people made happen last week:
Lyn brought extra dishes to a cake party at work, where they’re trying to make bring-your-own the new normal, and she’s bringing her loose leaf tea and tea ball to an offsite work meeting to avoid those evil silky pyramid teabags!
Steph scored some second-hand cloth diapers for her baby on board!
Beth rewaxed her beeswax wraps!
Now tell me . . .
What are your go-to vegan and vegetarian recipes? Write me or leave them in the comments!
Also, I want your recent eco wins! Brag @ me! I live for it.
Lastly, thanks to everyone who has sent notes and comments in the last couple of weeks. Researching, writing about, and thinking about climate change can sometimes feel like being stuck in the Upside Down with a demigorgon, and it’s a lovely boost to hear enthusiastic responses from this green gang.
If you want to help me and FMFP reach more people and do more good, please do keep on sharing, and click that heart (at the top and bottom of posts) as an offering to our algorithmic overlords.