Tag Archives: vegetarianism

Anti-Climate Change Diets: Do We Have to Go Whole Hog?

20 Jul

Americana cuisine culture is undeniably tied to climate change. From the all-American pastime of baseball to the nostalgic county fairs to the backyard barbeques, America has long embraced and embodied a culture of hotdogs, hamburgers, barbeque, bacon, etc, etc. Per capita, Americans eat the second largest amount of meat in the world, and unsurprisingly, the United States is the second greatest global greenhouse gas emitter.

If all Americans went vegan, a diet in which no animal products are consumed, greenhouse gas emissions from the meat and dairy industries would be eliminated, which would likely slow down climate change significantly. However, such a national transformation remains out of the picture thanks to American food culture as well as economic reasons involving accessibility in low-income, low-access areas and political reasons such as government subsidization of meat and dairy industries. Nonetheless, being deliberate about what we eat can make a difference in helping fight climate change; not all meat-containing diets contribute equally to carbon emissions.

In an ideal world, we would just cut animal products from our diet cold-turkey. That is, no more meat, no more eggs, no more dairy products. A study in the journal PNAS calculated that if farmed animals were removed from U.S. agriculture, there’d be a 28% decrease in our agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and a 23% increase in total food production.

Meat production is so resource-intensive and consequently emission-heavy because one must account for all of the resources it took to raise the livestock. For example, to calculate the carbon footprint of one adult cow before being slaughtered, many factors must be included — the energy inputs needed to grow the feed, the nitrous oxide emitted by fertilizer, the feed itself, and the cow’s methane emissions. This doesn’t even include the cost of slaughter, processing and transport to market and then to the dinner table.

While many people choose a vegan lifestyle as an environmental action, just as many choose to eliminate animal products for health and moral reasons. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program, processed meats qualify as a Group 1 carcinogen, i.e. when consumed, they are known to cause cancer in humans.  In addition, many are familiar with the brutal and violent imagery that often defines the treatment of all kinds of animals in the meat and dairy industry. However, morals, ethics, and health concerns aside, even if solely for the environment, it makes sense for everyone to go vegan or at least vegetarian.

Snap back to reality and it’s clear that it’s not reasonable to hope that Americans will be willing to make such a dramatic change to their diets. Meat is deeply embedded in American food culture. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported in 2015 that Americans consume 198.5 pounds of meat per person, per year. For comparison, Koreans eat 113.5 lbs per capita, per year and Filipinos eat 63 lbs per capita, per year. One end of the dietary spectrum is a meat-heavy diet and the other end is veganism. Although a national leap from the meat-heavy side to the vegan side isn’t likely to occur all at once, our environment isn’t necessarily doomed.

As Maya Almaraz, a postdoctoral climate and environment researcher at UC Davis, notes, “eliminating 90 percent of your meat intake is more important than eliminating all of your meat intake.” Similar to starting a strict diet or making a well-intentioned New Year’s Resolution, people who abruptly switch to a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle often find the changes challenging and as a result end up giving it up over time. Almaraz points out that a sustained lifestyle which includes small amounts of meat is better than having an all-or-nothing attitude. Making a shift towards the vegan side is better than doing nothing.

With this mindset, there are many diets cropping up that are less restrictive, more forgiving twists on veganism and vegetarianism. U.S. News & World Report ranked the top diets of 2018 in terms of simplicity, good nutrition, safety, weight loss (both long and short term), and protection against heart disease and diabetes. Their scoring was compiled by a panel of 25 nationally recognized health experts, including professionals like Michael Dansinger, Teresa Fung, and Penny Kris-Etherton. Dansinger is the Founding Director of the Diabetes Reversal Program at Tufts Medical Center, Fung is a professor of nutrition at Simmons College and Harvard School of Public Health, and Kris-Etherton, having published over 300 scientific papers, has studied the diet-heart disease link for over 30 years.

Among these rankings, the Mediterranean diet was first, and flexitarianism was third. Perhaps surprisingly, vegetarianism ended as 10th, and veganism finished 19th. Evidently, the diet rankings focus on health factors, so the diets to be discussed must still be evaluated for their environmental impacts.

Environmentally, the Mediterranean diet gives vegetarianism and veganism a run for their money. Vegetarians don’t worry about killing innocent animals, and vegans have the added benefit of not having the harm of livestock for other products like eggs and milk on their conscience. Yet in terms of environmental cost, the Houlton Lab at UC Davis found that the Mediterranean diet emits slightly higher levels of carbon dioxide equivalent than vegetarianism or veganism.

Results modeled by the Houlton Lab. Vegan, vegetarian, and Mediterranean diet emissions are much lower than emissions by Doctor Recommended and Normal American diets.

In the Mediterranean diet, adherents eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and olive oil. Chicken is consumed occasionally, and red meat is eaten rarely. The reduced emissions in this diet support the idea that not all meat contributes equally to greenhouse gas emissions. The Houlton Lab also did calculations of how much carbon is emitted per serving of various foods. Beef creates 330 g. By simply eating chicken instead, that number becomes 52 g, and for perspective, lentils emit 2 g/serving.

The Mediterranean diet might also be an appealing option for the environmentally conscious because of studies like the one in the journal PNAS that modeled the scenario of a meatless America. Although researchers White and Hall found a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in food production, they also concluded that without meat there would be a deficiency of micronutrients like vitamins A and B12. In modeling a diet on a population scale, the apparent challenge is making sure diets meet micronutrient requirements. Interestingly, there was an excess of macronutrients like proteins in both animal and plants-only systems because modelers bumped up the amount of protein in attempt to increase micronutrients. The Mediterranean diet easily meets government nutrition recommendations, and people following this diet would likely not run into such deficiencies. 

A graphic from the study modeling a meatless U.S agricultural system referenced above. In many cases the system without animal food sources had inadequate or reduced micronutrients.

Flexitarianism is another diet growing in popularity. In 2016, 22.8 million Americans self reported as flexitarians- more than three times the 7.3 million who identified as vegetarian. Flexitarians, or “flexible vegetarians”, are vegetarians who allow themselves to eat meat once in a while. This diet focuses on plant proteins, or “new meats” like tofu, beans, nuts, and eggs instead of focusing on animal proteins. Flexitarianism could be the solution for those who are conscious of their health and the harmful effect that meat production has on the environment, but who are not quite willing to commit themselves to giving up entire food categories.

Similar to the Houlton lab findings, a research team at Oxford University quantified the pattern of a reduced carbon footprint with reduction of meat intake. Comparing the emissions of high, medium, and low meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans, they found that the average greenhouse gas emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per day (kgCO2e/day) progressively decreased as meat content decreased. For example, the high meat-eaters emitted 7.19 kgCO2e/day, a low meat-eater emitted 4.67 kgCO2e/day, vegetarians emitted 3.81 kgCO2e/day, and vegans emitted 2.89 kgCO2e/day. A flexitarian would likely qualify as a low meat-eater, and emitting 4.67 kgCO2e/day is certainly more ideal than emitting 7.19 kgCO2e/day.

A visual representation of the results from the Oxford study on greenhouse emissions from various diets. The bars illustrate the age-and-sex-adjusted mean (95 % confidence interval) GHG emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per day per group. (Estrera)

The shared feature of all of the diets mentioned so far is the reduction of meat consumption. As the name suggests, the very recent diet, “reducetarianism”, is no exception. According to The Reducetarian Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 2015 by Brian Kateman,“reducetarianism is the practice of eating less meat – red meat, poultry, and seafood – as well as less dairy and fewer eggs, regardless of the degree or motivation.”  

With each new diet and subsequent new name and following, the distinctions seem to be minor because the goals are so similar. Reducetarianism is different from Flexitarianism in that the goal is to reduce “with respect to [one’s] own diet”. Flexitarianism was popularized as a way to be vegetarian without feeling the guilt and doubt of not being a “real” vegetarian whenever there might’ve been a slip-up in eating. Other consumption patterns that defeat the all-or-nothing mentality of certain diets include Weekday Vegetarianism, the Vegetarian Before 6 (VB6) Diet, and Meatless Monday.

On a global scale, in 2012, it was reported that food production makes up one-third of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases.  In 2008, livestock production was associated with 18% of global greenhouse gases, including 37% of methane and 9% of carbon dioxide. Any decrease in these gases could mean getting closer to stopping the widespread destruction humans are bringing to Earth by climate change.

Like Peter Singer, the moral philosopher, says, “reduce now, and next month, reduce more. Maybe you’ll get to zero, and anyway, you’ll be doing less harm.” Similarly, in the Three R’s, it’s helpful to remember that “reduce” is the first but also the most important.

Doing something is better than doing nothing, and with every meal, there’s the opportunity to do something. Of course, diet is not the end-all of action against climate change, not in the slightest. As of 2014, globally, the transportation sector emitted 14% of global greenhouse gases, and the agriculture, forestry, and other land use sector emitted 24% of the total emissions. It’s incredible that agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than those from all cars, trains, planes, and boats. The argument goes that if we eliminated the meat and dairy industries from agriculture, we’d be in the clear. But in the grander scheme of things, even if both agriculture and transportation were made completely emission free, the world would still be generating well over half of its current emissions.

However, while conscious consumerism might trick the consumer into assuming more blame than they may deserve, people eat so often that it only makes sense to be deliberate in the act. As said by Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Eaarth, “it’s hard to imagine what the argument could be against taking this step, given all that we know about the way our planet works, our bodies work, and our industrial food system works.”

-Rachel Estrera (‘21) intends to major in neuroscience major. She is an Aries who enjoys reading memoirs, eating ice cream, and watching Studio Ghibli movies. She lives in Lamont House.

Additional reading:

This Interactive Chart Explains World’s Top 10 Emitters, and How They’ve Changed– World Resources Institute

The diet that helps fight climate change– Vox

Is a No-Meat World Really Better?-NPR

Video: https://youtu.be/TSzQ-lznLiw