A new study found that simply following healthy-eating guidelines, which would mean eating less meat, could cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Last year, the US government updated its dietary guidelines and said the average American eats too many calories and needs to cut back on sodium, refined grains, sugars, saturated fats, and meat—they directed that last one specifically at men and boys. The document explains how outside factors like social and cultural norms affect people’s food choices. But it says nothing about how people’s diets affect factors beyond their health—mainly, the environment.
It’s not for lack of trying. When the advisory committee that drafts the guidelines decided to collect data on the environmental impacts of people’s diets, Congress attached a directive telling them to ignore those impacts in their revisions.
But it’s true: The planet’s got beef with people who eat a lot of...beef. It takes twice the land and deforestation to feed people on meat-based diets than to feed vegetarians and vegans. That’s bad, considering land use and deforestation account for 40 percent of the global rise in carbon dioxide emissions. If everyone went vegetarian, we would cut food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 63 percent, according to research published last year.
But it’s unrealistic to expect everyone in the world to switch to a plant-based diet overnight. If you love meat and you care about the environment, do you have to choose one or the other? According to Paul Behrens, a researcher and assistant professor of energy and environmental change at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, the answer is no.
In a study published this week, Behrens and his colleagues found that if people in high-income nations just followed their country’s recommended diet, it would reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, waterway pollution, and land use by up to 24.8 percent, 21.3 percent, and 17.6 percent, respectively. (The USDA guidelines advise people to eat “a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products.”)
In lower-income nations like India and Indonesia where people often don’t eat enough meat, poultry, and eggs (or get enough calories in general), following the governments' recommended diets would actually increase emissions—but still, net global emissions across the 37 countries studied would fall, Behrens says.
Of all the foods, beef has the biggest impact on global warming. Raising cows for beef demands 28 times more land, 11 times more water, and five times more greenhouse gases than other animal-based foods like chicken, pork, and dairy. Fertilizer and cow dung also run into rivers and cause toxic algal blooms that kill plants and fish, Behrens says. Plus, “cattle have this digestion process in their stomachs that releases a lot of methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas,” he adds. Yes, cow farts contribute to climate change.
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To help the planet, you don’t have to cut meat out of your diet completely—just, like, a little bit. “Changing diets could dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, especially reducing meat and dairy consumption, because these foods alone contribute up to 20 percent of our total emissions,” says David Cleveland, a research professor in the environmental studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The dietary guidelines drafting committee wanted to include in the guidelines’ main text that “a healthy dietary pattern is...lower in red and processed meat,” but the meat industry felt threatened and pushed back. The final guidelines simply suggest a “shift towards other protein foods” like seafood, seeds, and nuts. Only boys and men need to cut back, they say.
“Much of the information about food people are getting now is from the for-profit food industry, which encourages people to choose food that is bad for their health and for the environment, so it’s important to regulate that information,” Cleveland says.
Eating a diet heavy in beef ups your risks of diabetes and of death from any cause and can make heart disease worse. Cutting back on red and processed meats doesn’t just improve your health and reduce emissions from agriculture—it also could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the healthcare system, according to Cleveland’s research, published this year in Climatic Change. It’s a win-win-win situation, he says.
We can’t talk about animal agriculture without talking about animal welfare, especially since in many cases, the more humane ways of raising animals are worse for the environment. (Of course, the most humane thing is to not eat them at all.) Happy cows eat grass and live in pastures, but grass-fed, pasture-raised cows emit more methane and use more land than cows raised in feedlots. (That’s why beef production makes up a larger portion of emissions in countries like Brazil and Australia where more cows eat grass, Behrens says.)
“There are lots of animal welfare issues, so there’s this real trade-off,” he says. “People want to eat free-range meat because they want to be kind to the animals, but these are often the people who want to consider the environmental impacts as well.” His advice? Focus less on where the meat comes from and more on eating less of it.
Cleveland says countries should include environmental impacts in their dietary guidelines since people’s diets affect global warming in big ways. But having the information is only half the battle. “While information is important, the way we value that information and our emotional responses [to it] are key to determining our food choices,” he says.
It takes a complete lifestyle change to go from carnivore to all-soy-everything (I should know, I’m a vegetarian). Behrens’ research shows that you don’t have to—you can have a positive impact on the environment by following a diet more in line with the Reducetarian model, which simply encourages eating less meat.
“Even if you just follow these recommended diets in high-income nations, you do get better personal health and environmental health,” Behrens says. “It’s quite a big deal to change habits like this, and nationally recommended diets are one step along the way.”
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