The United States must cut back on its meat consumption in order to meet its climate goals. Meat and dairy account for nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse emissions, and Americans eat more meat per capita than any other country.
Though it is long understood that reducing meat consumption is one of the most meaningful ways individuals can fight climate change, experts now say that dietary changes at the community, city and state level are necessary to make any meaningful impact. “It has to be a collective effort, ideally with support from the government,” said Jessica Zionts, a food researcher with World Resources Institute. Researchers estimate that if Americans swapped out half of their meat and dairy consumption for plant-based alternatives, the associated emissions reductions would be the equivalent of taking nearly 50 million cars off the road each year.
The Biden administration, despite its pledges to reduce emissions, including methane, has stayed mostly quiet on the role of agriculture in getting there. In May, representatives from the U.S. beef industry said they escaped “relatively unscathed” from Biden’s climate policies. The administration’s 2021 plan to curb methane emissions did not include any changes to cattle feedlots or beef farming, despite red meat being one of the largest per-calorie sources of emissions.
Chloe Waterman, senior program manager for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said there’s little political appetite at the federal level to take on food-related emissions. “We need [to focus on] places that aren’t as influenced by the industrial agribusiness lobby,” she said.
Several cities have stepped in to fill this gap.
Starting nearly two decades ago, city lawmakers in Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland passed “Meatless Monday” resolutions. Minneapolis even launched a Meatless Monday supper club. But these initiatives were mostly symbolic — meant largely to encourage plant-based eating habits more than anything else, Waterman said.
More recently, however, several cities have begun experimenting with a new approach that advocates say can put an actual dent in emissions: reducing the amount of meat city agencies purchase and serve at public events.
Five years later, the city of Berkeley passed a city ordinance requiring meals served at all city facilities and events on Mondays to be entirely vegan. And in 2019, New York City pledged to reduce beef purchases by 50 percent by the year 2040. (The city also brought Meatless Mondays to its 1.1 million public school students).
“In order to meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals, we need to halt deforestation,” said Zionts, adding that beef production is responsible for more than 40 percent of deforestation. “We need to feed 10 billion people by 2050, but we have other ways to meet protein requirements that are more efficient,” said Zionts, pointing to alternatives that require less land and produce fewer emissions than cattle.
“Our research shows that we cannot meet the Paris Agreement targets unless we reduce the amount of meat and dairy that we’re producing and consuming,” says Waterman.
Despite this, plant-based diets can be a tough sell — even in ostensibly progressive cities.
Claudia Lifton, a Denver mayor’s office advisor and advocate for reducing meat consumption, said she had to tread strategically in Colorado, where cattle is the top agriculture export. She spent years forging relationships with different stakeholders.
“[A colleague] was really passionate about climate. So with them, I was talking about the carbon footprints of animal products and biodiversity loss. If someone’s really passionate about social justice, [bringing] up environmental racism and workers’ rights abuses in slaughterhouses [helps move the conversation forward],” she said. “Tapping into people’s passions drives them to action.”
In 2021, she successfully lobbied the city’s sustainability agency to serve only plant-based meals at public events. “Having some plant-forward language in a policy in Denver, which is in a state that is so rancher-influenced, is really symbolically powerful,” she said.
Positioning these proposals as a shift toward eating more vegetables and legumes tends to get less pushback than a policy that restricts meat, said Jennifer Channin, the executive director of Better Food Foundation—especially if the plant-based food in question is delicious.
Channin and her organization advise local governments and institutional dining systems as they navigate the transition toward more plant-based diets. “Sometimes it’s [as simple as] shifting out ingredients. For example, most diners will never tell the difference between a plant based mayo and an egg-based mayo,” she said.
When schools in San Luis Obispo, a coastal city 200 miles north of Los Angeles, cut down on meat purchases, they invested in training their staff to be able to make appealing vegetarian options, like Thai-influenced red lentil burgers.
“We need to stop asking how we can get the cheapest prices on packaged pizza and processed snacks and start asking what we need to do to afford better ingredients. When we serve better food, more kids participate and more money goes back into the system,” Erin Primer, the district’s director of food services, told Edible in 2018.
Channin said that municipalities need to make the transition away from meat as palatable as possible. “It’s going to be a barrier if [city purchasers] are forced to choose the cheapest rather than the best [meat alternatives],” because the cheapest option isn’t necessarily healthy or appealing, she said.
Menu descriptions can also make a huge difference in winning over public opinion, Channin said. Research has shown that describing the tastiness of a plant-based dish makes it more appealing to diners than highlighting its health benefits.
In the coming months, advocates like Waterman and Channin will see the policies they’ve advocated for enacted in the nation’s capital. Last year, Washington, D.C. passed legislation to measure and reduce GHG emissions associated with the city’s food purchases by a quarter by 2030.
The measure will make the district the first jurisdiction in the country to establish a target for reducing food-related emissions citywide, including in schools, public healthcare facilities and correctional facilities.
“At the time that it passed, no other local policy was requiring city or county operations to actually measure their emissions and work toward a goal,” Waterman said. The bill also provides for two full-time staff hires to ensure the commitment actually sticks.
One tool that Zionts believes will help keep the city on task is an emissions calculator developed by WRI. “They submit their procurement data — how much of everything they’ve purchased — and then we run it through the calculator,” Zionts said. Her team will then provide feedback to inform purchasing decisions that curb emissions.
Ultimately, Waterman wants to bring attention to the untapped power of cities and schools to curb food-related emissions. “Schools serve seven billion meals every year — more than Starbucks, Subway and McDonald’s combined.”
Cities and schools can and should lead the country away from meat-related emissions, she said. “They have to—because we’re not seeing that kind of bold leadership from the federal government.”
This article is part of Covering Climate Now’s ‘Food & Water’ joint coverage week. Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, nonprofit news service covering climate change. Follow them at @NexusMediaNews.
Jenny Splitter is the managing editor of Sentient Media.