May 11, 2017
Slowing Climate Change, One Steak at a Time
Note: this post was written for the final project for 24.03 Good Food: The Ethics and Politics of Food. The assignment was to engage with the topics of the class further by "introducing a moral question concerning food choices or food policy through a medium such as a pamphlet, lesson plan, wiki, blog, or webpage. Another option for the project was to engage in some form of activism around food justice, but writing a blog post seemed like the best option for me. Prospective students, I hope this post gives you an idea of what MIT projects could be like (at least for introductory philosophy classes).
Why Should You Care about Climate Change?
If you follow MIT blogs, you likely understand that climate change is real, and the result of human activity. The evidence is incontrovertible (all sources below). Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than at any time during the past 400,000 years (which included the ice ages), and the rise is clearly associated with fossil-fuel burning. Global sea level rose by 8 inches in just the past century. The average temperature increased by 1.1°C (2.0°F), and 16 of the 17 warmest years on record occurred since 2001 (in fact, each of the past few years have broken records for warmest year). The number of extreme weather events has been increasing. Countries in the developing world, those that burn the least fossil fuels, are taking the brunt of the changes. A recent study showed that climate change helped spark the Syrian civil war.
What Can You Do about Climate Change?
It is certainly tempting to defer climate change solutions to politicians. But, while policies and international agreements matter, grassroots efforts are also essential. In this post, I’d like to talk to you about one way you can personally slow climate change: curb your meat consumption.
Can't imagine giving up your main source of protein? I get that, but hear me out. In order to avoid devastating climate change, curbing our hunger for meat is essential. Meat has more of an impact on the environment than any other food we eat, and some scientists believe that reducing meat consumption is the best strategy for combatting climate change. Limiting just one individual's meat consumption could have a significant environmental impact: the average American consumes 270.7 pounds of meat per year!
Why Curb Meat Consumption?
Greeenhouse Gas Emissions:
- Emissions from livestock make up almost 15% of global emissions, which is more than the emissions from planes, trains, and automobiles combined!
- Meat consumption is predicted to rise 75% by 2050, and dairy consumption by 65%. Without severe cuts in this trend, agricultural emissions will take up the entire world’s carbon budget by 2050, with livestock a major contributor. This would mean every other sector, including energy, industry and transport, would have to be zero carbon.
- Cows and sheep are responsible for 37% of the total methane generated by human activity, through their ruminating guts and decomposing waste. Methane has 25 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide.
- 70% of the world's fresh water is used for agriculture.
- Hog, chicken and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states.
- About 33 million sq. km are currenly used for pasture, which is roughly the area of the Africa! This does not include the land used to provide food for the animals.The pasture area accommodates 20 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cows, over a billion sheep, and nearly a billion pigs.
- 45% of all land on earth is now estimated to be used for livestock and feed production
- The average US consumer today requires more than 2.5 acres (over two football fields!) of land each year to sustain their current diet.
Why Go Vegetarian or Vegan?
- Shifting diets away from meat could slash in half per capita greenhouse gas emissions related to eating habits worldwide. It could also ward off additional deforestation.
- On an individual level, being vegetarian could reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Which means you’ll likely live longer.
- A vegetarian diet costs less for consumers.
- Vegetarian diets could use up to 0.5 acres less of land per person each year, freeing up more land to feed more people.
- Changing dietary patterns could save $1 trillion annually by preventing health care costs and lost productivity. That figure goes up to as much as $30 trillion annually when also considering the economic value of lost life. And that doesn't even include the economic benefits of avoiding devastating extreme weather events that could result from climate change.
- Just like a vegetarian diet, a vegan diet is good for both your health and your wallet.
- It could cut per capita food and land use-related greenhouse gas emissions by 70%.
- A widespread adoption of the vegan diet could help avoid more than 8 million deaths by 2050.
- Warning: When applied to an entire global population, the vegan diet wastes available land that could otherwise feed more people. That’s because different kinds of land are used to produce different types of food, and not all diets exploit these land types equally. The vegan diet differs from vegetarian or reduced-meat diets because it uses no perennial cropland at all, and, as a result, would waste the chance to produce a lot of food.
What If You Can't Give up Meat?
There are plenty of other healthy and environmentally-friendly options for reducing meat consumption! Here are several dietary suggestions, in order of increasing difficulty:
- Eat Less Processed Foods, More Carbs. Even if you opt into a vegetarian diet, make sure to avoid highly processed foods, including common meat substitutes like tofu and veggie burgers. Eating more bread, pasta and potatoes instead of meat is actually more environmentally friendly.
- Stop Eating Beef (and Other Red Meat). Beef has more than six times higher greenhouse gas intensity than poultry on a by-serving basis. Reducing heavy red meat consumption — primarily beef and lamb — would lead to a per capita greenhouse gas emissions reduction of between 15% and 35% by 2050. And, as food-related emissions improve from diets that include less red meat, health improves as well. More than 5 million lives and up to $700 billion in healthcare-related costs would be saved globally if people adopted a healthier diet without red meat. It's healthier and cheaper to increase your fruit and vegetable consumption instead!
Credit: Quinola Mothergrain
- Meatless Mondays. Going meatless once a week provides health benefits and saves money. Though it can be challenging to serve healthy meals on a budget, going meatless once a week can help conserve money for more fruits and vegetables.
- Vegan Before 6 (VB6). This one is similar to Meatless Mondays, except the goal is to avoid any meat products before dinnertime. A bit harder for those who like their morning cereal. As motivation, consider that even a 50% cut in meat and dairy intake would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40%, depending on what the freed-up land was used for.
What's the Potential Impact of Your Actions?
Let's do the math! If ~10% of people who read this post stop eating just beef for a month, it would save, on average: 47,520 gallons of water, 67,050 square feet for grazing and growing feed crops, and 983,734 kilojoules of energy for feed production and transport. That’s 273 kWh, or the amount it takes to run ~4 average laptops for a year!
The reduction of beef consumption by 10% of readers would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12,247 kg, or 27,000 lbs. And if you substitute beef for, say, rice, you’d still reduce emissions by 11,716 kg, or 25,829 lbs. Pretty impactful!
Would you consider reducing your meat consumption? Let me know via email or in the comments below! I will summarize the results in my next post.
Credit: ASAP Science, YouTube
- NASA Global Climate Change, "Climate change: How do we know?"
- Welch, Craig. "Climate Change Helped Spark Syrian War, Study Says." National Geographic (2015)
- Carrington, Damian. "Eating Less Meat Essential to Curb Climate Change, Says Report." The Guardian (2014)
- Barclay, Eliza. "A Nation Of Meat Eaters: See How It All Adds Up." NPR (2012)
- Upton, John. "Farming Now Worse For Climate Than Deforestation." Climate Central (2015)
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- Worland, Justin. "How a Vegetarian Diet Could Help Save the Planet." TIME (2016)
- Magill, Bobby. "Studies Show Link Between Red Meat and Climate Change." Climate Central (2016)
- Vaughan, Adam. "Halving Meat, Dairy Intake Would Slash Farm Emissions." The Guardian (2014)
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- Meatless Monday website
- Schweitzer, Liza. "Mark Bittman's VB6 Diet." WebMD (2016)
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- AsapSCIENCE. "What If The World Went Vegetarian?" YouTube (2016)
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- "Types of Vegetarianism." Vegetarian Nation
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- Goodland, Robert. "Is Vegetarianism Worth It?" Sierra Club Daily (2013)
- "Save Land." Vegetarian Society (2013)
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- Collins, Nick. "Becoming Vegetarian 'can Harm the Environment'" The Telegraph (2013)