These beautiful cows are devastating our climate.
Apparently I haven't done enough to educate my fellow Americans about the environmental benefits of eating less meat. A recent study examined beliefs about climate change and the efficacy of actions around diet and other strategies in the US and the Netherlands. One of the authors of that study, Annick de Witt, summed it up:
We presented representative groups of more than 500 people in both countries with three food-related options (eat less meat; eat local and seasonal produce; and eat organic produce) and three energy-related options (drive less; save energy at home; and install solar panels). We asked them whether they were willing to make these changes in their own lives, and whether they already did these things. While a majority of the surveyed people recognized meat reduction as an effective option for addressing climate change, the outstanding effectiveness of this option, in comparison to the other options, was only clear to 6% of the US population, and only 12% of the Dutch population.
Only 6% of Americans knew about the "outstanding effectiveness" of reducing meat to combat climate change. (Notice this is merely reducing meat, not eliminating it altogether.)
What is this "outstanding effectiveness"? About a 50% reduction in mitigation costs, for one:
A global transition to a low meat-diet as recommended for health reasons would reduce the mitigation costs to achieve a 450 ppm CO2-eq. stabilisation target by about 50% in 2050 compared to the reference case.
In other words, without reducing the meat in our diets, we’ll have to find those savings in greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else.
Emissions from livestock account for as much greenhouse gases as the entire fleet of cars, trains, ships and airplanes throughout the world. No one loves cows more than I do, but clearly the world would be better off if there were fewer of them. Lots fewer of them. (With 1.4 billion cows in the world, we could stand to lose quite a few before anyone would notice the lack of bovine beauty on our hillsides.)
And in fact, those hillsides and pastures currently occupied by cows could be filled with carbon-reducing trees. If we’re going to keep greenhouse gas levels low —so that temperatures rise below 2C degrees, or even 1.5C as scientists are currently advising—we need to plant trees to recapture that carbon we've already released. Lots of trees. Billions of trees. So freeing up the 80% of the world's land that is currently occupied by my friends the cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens (and the crops they consume) and replacing them with trees and other vegetation would go a long way toward fixing our little problem with climate change.
One reason cows and other ruminants produce so much greenhouse gas is that the gas they produce is methane, not CO2 (carbon dioxide). And the impact of methane is over 25 times as great as CO2. But because methane has a shorter “lifespan” than CO2, the good news is that removing it will have a sooner impact. So all those meatless meals will make the atmosphere that much cleaner, in, oh, about 12 years!
Even worse than methane is nitrous oxide, which is produced by the manure of all those livestock. And nitrous oxide is a major player in greenhouse gas—it’s hundreds of times more potent than CO2. Manure from livestock accounts for a whopping 65% of human-related nitrous oxide. That gives new ewww to poo.
What about eating local? Eating a plant-based diet one day a week—the equivalent of taking 273 cars off the road—has more impact than eating local seven days a week. If you multiply by seven, you can get an idea of the benefits of a completely plant-based diet. But hey, you could do both! Try eating local, plant-based food from your farmer’s market whenever possible.
The study points to another factor that may influence people's knowledge of the destructiveness of eating meat:
People who already eat less meat may be more open to hear and retain information on the climate impacts of meat, while people who eat lots of meat may be more inclined to deny or downplay it.
Does this ring a bell? Push any buttons? Clichés aside, it struck a chord with me: I happen to like eating sugar very much, and there's an inconvenient amount of research saying sugar isn't very good for you. I ignore it. Why? Because I like sugar and don't want to feel guilty when I eat it. I don't want to change my ways. This, I suspect, is true of many meat eaters as well, including many people who consider themselves environmentalists.
The author of the piece goes on to suggest several ways to make this realization more, well, palatable. She suggests moving "beyond finger pointing tactics" and focusing on the empowering message of meat reduction.
And, "while environmental behaviors often involve sacrifices, the meat-reduction option offers a range of personal benefits." What are these personal benefits? For me, it's the huge savings in calories that would otherwise be delivered by the meat on my plate. (Did I mention I love sugar? I would much rather eat a few Oreos after dinner than eat a hunk of meat as part of my meal.) There's also the wide variety of plants at my disposal, a diversity I didn't know about before I started exploring vegan and vegetarian cooking. I ate quinoa and kale long before hipsters noticed it, I was making risotto before gastro pubs were even a thing, and I ate cactus long before Wegman's started selling it in their produce department.
I like my food cutting edge.
But the best benefit, and the real reason I switched to a vegan diet, was because I hated the guilt I felt every time I ate meat. Even before I lived next door to cows—indeed, from the time I first knew where the meat on my plate came from—I knew there was suffering involved in raising and killing animals for food. I avoided that information, too, during my meat-eating days, because I didn't need any more guilt. Now, I merely feel a huge sense of relief every time I come across one of those shock videos online.
These concrete cows release much less methane than the real thing.
So yeah, I get it—I know why my environmentalist friends don't want to know more about the huge environmental costs of their diets and the “outstanding effectiveness” of eliminating even some meat. But the fact that only 6% of Americans do know this, when around 40% consider themselves environmentalists, tells me I haven't done enough to educate my circle of friends. (Yes, I take these things very personally.)
The author concludes with this:
Consumption and lifestyles therefore tend to be shaped more by people collectively than individually. The most effective strategies thus engage people in groups, and give them opportunities to develop their understanding and narratives about food in dialog together.
Well, I have a blog, a few hundred cookbooks, and several social media accounts. If anyone is prepared to help people develop a narrative about food, it's me—well, me and a few hundred food bloggers who focus on plant-based cooking. As a plant enthusiast, I want to share my love of beans and fennel and farro. (But not avocado. Never avocado.)
So join the avocado-free Zeitgeist! And save the planet one meal at a time!
Do you want to know more about the link between livestock and greenhouse gas emissions? Try Chatham House, a think tank in the UK that's been studying this for a while. Prefer your info from the American side of the pond, and in video form? Try Johns Hopkins. And if you like a little conspiracy flavor with your facts, try Cowspiracy.