In Alaska, the glaciers are melting. In California, wildfire season is now longer than it’s ever been. In New York City, rising sea levels are threatening to vanquish lower Manhattan. Ditto for Miami, New Orleans, and other cities around the U.S. and the world. We’re in the midst of a climate crisis. But even as we rally, protest, and make the switch to reusable tote bags and metal straws, it seems as if our efforts are futile in the face of climate-change deniers and the nation’s reliance on carbon. The American Psychological Association has even coined a term for the feelings of “loss, helplessness, and frustration” people experience in response to the catastrophe: Ecoanxiety. But there is one way that we can actually make a big positive impact, and it’s actually very simple. We can stop eating so much meat.
Today, more and more people are adjusting the way they eat not to improve the health of their bodies, but to improve the health of the planet. Sometimes called the “low-carbon diet,” this approach involves cutting down on meat and dairy, as well as eating locally and seasonally and reducing packaging and food waste. Experts say these actions can lower our personal carbon footprint and, collectively, slow the speed of climate change. In his 2019 book We Are The Weather: Saving The Planet Begins At Breakfast, Jonathan Safran Foer argues that eating a plant-based diet is “one of the four highest-impact things an individual can do to tackle climate change.” The three others are avoiding air travel, not owning a car, and having fewer children; so diet may be the simplest adjustment an individual can make.
But why, exactly, does eating meat harm the environment? As the New York Times explains, there are four major reasons: when forests are cleared for livestock, carbon is released into the atmosphere; cows, sheep, and goats release methane as they digest their food; animal manure also releases methane; and fossil fuels are used to transport food, operate machinery, and create fertilizer. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock accounts for 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gasses each year — roughly equal to the emissions caused by trains, planes, cars, and ships. A 2019 study published in Science found that we get 18% of our calories and 37% of our protein from animal products, but livestock takes up 83% of our farmland and generates almost 60% of food emissions. Beef is responsible for far more greenhouse gases than other animal products, followed by lamb, farmed crustaceans, cheese, and pork. Fish, poultry, and eggs have a lesser impact, but still way more than vegan fare, such as tofu and nuts.
The environmental impact of animal food products is so great that even small steps can make a difference, especially if enacted on a wide scale. Nina Gheihman, a PhD candidate in Sociology at Harvard University whose research focuses on veganism and who works with the meal delivery service Fresh N’ Lean, tells Refinery29 that while policy changes such as a nationwide carbon tax are definitely a good thing, we shouldn’t discount the collective power of consumers’ food choices. This doesn’t have to mean the total elimination of animal products, she adds.
“Right now, everyone is where they are on the spectrum [of animal product consumption], and it’s about moving towards reducing that consumption,” she says. “If 90% of people begin eating more vegan meals, that would have a much bigger impact than a small number of people becoming fully vegan.” She adds that reducing your meat consumption is better for the planet than switching from beef to chicken: “Instead of replacing one meat with another but still eating meat every single day, only eating meat two or three times a week will have a bigger impact.”
Some millennials and Gen Z, however, are ditching meat altogether, for the sake of the planet. Natasha Jokic, 23, went vegetarian in 2015, after learning about the environmental impact. “I used to be one of those people who would be like, ‘But bacon! How could you ever give up meat?’” she says. “Then in college, I was studying political science and hearing more and more about environmental degradation, and I started realizing there’s no real way to justify eating meat.” At first, she began reducing her meat intake without eliminating it entirely, but then had a revelation over a pork burrito. “I realized, I no longer enjoy this, I no longer think it’s right. And then I stopped.”
Likewise, Dena Ogden, 36, who lives in a small town in Washington, decided to stop buying and eating beef — unless there’s a burger at a friend’s BBQ. “There’s an old quote along the lines of, No one can do everything, but everyone can do something, and my spouse and I both just felt like this is one way we can contribute and reduce our footprint,” she explains. The change has been a relatively easy one: swapping beef burgers for vegetarian patties and using turkey sausage instead of beef, for example. “I can’t say that I consciously miss red meat, although I imagine at some point I’ll make an effort to find substitutes for my favorite comfort foods, like French dip sandwiches,” Ogden says.
Thanks to climate activists such as Greta Thunberg, 16 — who famously convinced her whole family to go vegan and was named TIME magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year— there’s a growing awareness of the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, and a growing field of companies contributing to the solution. Isabelle Steichen, co-founder and CEO of the vegan food company Lupii, says the planet played a major factor in her decision to become vegan. After moving to the United States from France in 2013, she says she became really aware of the scale of animal agriculture here compared to Europe, and going vegan just made sense to her for “both the environment and animal ethics.” Still, Steichen stresses that she doesn’t expect everyone to join her.
"If 90% of people begin eating more vegan meals, that would have a much bigger impact than a small number of people becoming fully vegan.”
“Every little step and every conscious decision matters,” she says. “A big reason why people fall off veganism is that they think it’s either everything or nothing.” Case in point: a 2014 study of over 11,000 Americans found that 84% of vegans and vegetarians abandon that diet. “But I don’t think it’s binary at all,” Steichen adds. “Every consumer choice you’re making has a reaction, and if we all cut out one animal-based meal a week, that’s a huge impact we can make, collectively.”
Steichen has a good point. Despite the anecdotal evidence from friends and influencers who reside on the coasts and sing the praises of ditching meat, the numbers of vegans and vegetarians in the United States have barely shifted from the late ‘90s. Even as “vegan” options proliferate in groceries around the country and meatless Impossible burgers can be found at Burger King, a 2018 Gallup poll found that only 5% of Americans claim vegetarianism, down from 6% in 1999. That same survey found that a mere 3% of Americans say they’re vegan, up from 2% in 2012.
For many, reducing meat is more realistic than veganism, especially considering that American culture (outside of major cities such as New York and Los Angeles) isn’t really set up for a completely plant-based diet. Happy Cow, a Yelp-like service for vegans and vegetarians, shows 1,569 vegan restaurants in the United States — but while there are 349 in California, South Dakota has only one. Where your meat comes from also plays a factor — chicken from your local farmer’s market has a lower carbon impact than factory-farmed chicken shipped to a supermarket. That farmer’s market chicken is more expensive, but it’s also both higher quality meat and better for the environment, says Gheihman — and while you can certainly spend a lot of cash on plant-based meat alternatives if you want to, vegan staples such as tofu, lentils, beans, and grains are reliably lower-priced than meat. “Plant-based diets are actually cheapest, so if people do eat more plant-based meals, they can then afford higher-quality meat — they just can’t eat that meat three times a day,” she explains. In fact, in many cultures around the world, low-income people eat a mostly plant-based diet.
"No one can do everything, but everyone can do something."
If you don’t have the time to cook a meal at home, of course, finding low-cost vegan or vegetarian fast food can be difficult — a burger and fries at New York vegan favorite By Chloe is definitely more expensive than the same meal from the McDonald’s dollar menu. But if you’re going to the supermarket and have time to cook, plant-based meals such as rice and beans, lentil stew, or tofu and veggie stir-fry can be less expensive than making a similar meal with meat. This also isn’t an all-or-nothing scenario. Even taking five minutes to pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch instead of buying a beef burger off the dollar menu is a positive change.
Proponents of a low carbon diet are encouraged by the growth of animal product alternatives, such as the rise of plant-based milks and meat substitutes. Beyond Meat, which names addressing climate change as one of four main factors in its mission statement, pictures its target customer as the “conflicted carnivore,” says a spokesperson. “We want to enable consumers to continue eating the food they love, but in a way that’s better for their health and better for the environment. We’re not sitting here saying, ‘Don’t eat meat,’ but we’re trying to provide another option.” Dean Foods, America’s largest milk producer, recently filed for bankruptcy, which the company blamed on “accelerated decline in the conventional white milk category” — meaning dairy milk sales have fallen as plant-based milks have become more popular. “That happened because consumers stopped buying the product,” says Steichen. “To me, that’s proof that it very much matters what you do at an individual level. At the end of the day, you have a lot of power because you’re the person who’s purchasing the product.”
There are also some changes you can make to your diet that don’t have anything to do with meat. In 2007, restaurant company Bon Appetit Management Company launched a Low Carbon Diet program to reduce the food service sector’s contribution to climate change. Their “five staples of a low-carbon diet” are: 1) don’t waste food; 2) make “seasonal and regional” your food mantra; 3) move away from beef and cheese; 4) don’t buy air-freighted food; and 5) if it’s processed and packaged, skip it. Buying seasonal food from local suppliers cuts down on transportation emissions that result from, for example, flying grapes from Chile to the United States. Reducing packaging not only cuts down on the trash you’re sending to the landfill, but also minimizes the energy that it takes to create that packaging in the first place. Finally, processed foods, such as ones containing high-fructose corn syrup, take more energy to create.
These adjustments might add dollars to your grocery bill and therefore not be doable for everyone, but as milk and meat alternatives become more ubiquitous (read: cheaper), these products will become more accessible. And as the effects of climate change start to impact our everyday lives, we’ll all eventually have to change our daily habits.
For those interviewed here, changing their diet was one of several reductions in their carbon footprint. Along with eliminating red meat, Ogden’s family recycles, shops second-hand, and plans to switch to an electric vehicle when they need to replace a car; Steichen composts; Jokic avoids single-use plastics. Again, many of these changes require either time or financial resources — a reusable water bottle is more expensive than a plastic one, and visiting a local recycling center or compost drop-off often requires you to carve out an hour of your weekend. But while it may be harder for some than others, the vast majority of us can do something to help the planet. As Gheihman puts it, “Everybody has not only an opportunity, but also a responsibility to reduce their carbon footprint. And three times a day, you can make an impact, just by choosing one food versus another.”