Report: We Don’t All Have to Go Vegan to Stop Climate Change
Even if your most recent meal was a steak, the headlines still sound like a doomsday scenario: Global demand for beef will jump 95 percent between 2006 and 2050, and the resulting emissions could spell ruin for the environment.
The answer to the looming meatpocalypse, however, is not global vegetarianism or veganism, according to Janet Ranganathan, vice president for science and research at the World Resources Institute. Ranganathan is the lead author of a paper published Wednesday that proposes a series of diet “shifts” that would allow people to incrementally change what they eat while drastically reducing the emissions associated with producing that food.
“Just cutting meat back—particularly beef—the average American consumer can cut back their greenhouse gas production by half,” Ranganathan said in an interview. After all, Americans vastly overconsume both protein and carbohydrates, according to the report, even after decades of declining beef consumption. Despite that drop, the American diet requires double the farmland of the world average while generating double the greenhouse gas emissions (with between 80 and 90 percent of those effects tied to meat, dairy, and other animal-derived products).
In other words, we can afford to cut back, both culturally and nutritionally. What about the freshly minted middle-class citizens in China, Brazil, and other developing nations who can afford to eat meat regularly? They don’t need to stop eating beef either, according to the report, nor do those for whom regular meat consumption is both a dream and a nutritional imperative. The report, in short, argues for a change in our relationship to beef in particular and meat in general—not a disavowal of it.
“We need to bring [meat consumption] down in high-consuming countries, peak it early in rising countries, and increase it in countries that aren’t getting what they need right now,” Ranganathan said.
The diet scenarios laid out in the paper range from “realistic” to “ambitious.” The authors point out that “none of the scenarios sought to turn everyone into a vegetarian.” Shift one cuts the overconsumption of calories, shift two reduces animal protein consumption overall, and shift three focuses on cutting back on beef consumption. Different degrees of change, with varying feasibility, are considered for each shift. In shift two, for example, the researchers examine the probable effect of both a large-scale adoption of the traditional Mediterranean diet (which includes small amounts of red meat) and broad adoption of vegetarianism in areas that overconsume protein.
To make these alterations happen, Ranganathan and her coauthors believe that more than public education campaigns and actions such as Meatless Mondays will be required. Without private industry getting involved and making plant-based proteins and other low-emission foods available widely and cheaply, none of these diet shifts can happen, she said. She noted that the increased interest in where food comes from, how it is produced, and what goes into it could help presage the type of consumer demand needed to make low-emissions products mainstream. Still, the focus on how food is produced—is it organic, grass-fed, cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised, antibiotic-free, cruelty-free, gluten-free?—isn’t exactly helping with the emissions side of things.
“You might have the most sustainably produced beef, but it would still have more of an impact than other foods,” she said. In terms of emissions, water, and land use, factory-farm-raised chicken would be a better choice.
However, such trade-offs contradict the argument that some environmentalists and food activists have made about the positive role grazing cattle can play vis-à-vis pastureland, water use, carbon storage, and climate change. In her book Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, Nicolette Hahn Niman calculates that, depending on how and where cattle are raised, a pound of beef requires the equivalent amount of water needed to grow a kilogram of rice. While still greater than the water demands of a staple food like rice, it is not exponentially so, as the WRI report and many other present it as being. (Nutritionally, a serving of beef has more protein than rice and contains vitamin B, iron, zinc, and amino acids found in only small amounts, if at all, in the grain.) Properly managed grazing can also help to revitalize grassland habitats, which excel at storing carbon.
Ranganathan and her coauthors don’t expect everyone to go vegan or vegetarian. “We do think they can have a significant impact on their diet just by making small changes to their consumption of animal-based production—specifically beef and dairy—and making switches to poultry and pork and eating less of it,” she continued. “Not giving it up—just eating less of it.”