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Yuliya K. '18

May 11, 2017

Slowing Climate Change, One Steak at a Time

Posted in: Best of the Blogs, Academics & Research

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). 

Note: this post was updated on June 21 in light of new information. 

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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. Unfortunately, there isn't much time for deliberation on this issue. Scientists point out that we need to reduce gas emissions significantly by 2020 or at least 2026 to keep the global temperature increase below 2°C. 

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 lifestyle change that is necessary to slow climate change: promote plant-based foods and curb 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!

Credit: MarketWatch

Why Curb Meat Consumption?

Greeenhouse Gas Emissions:

  • Livestock estimated to produce nearly 51%(!) of the world’s greenhouse gases. [editor's note: this number was updated; the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 15% estimate was incorrect]
  • In three decades, emissions related to agriculture and food production are likely to account for about half of the world’s available “carbon budget.”
  • Adhering to health guidelines on meat consumption could cut global food-related emissions by nearly a third by 2050, while widespread adoption of a vegetarian diet would bring down emissions by 63% (and a vegan diet by 70%).
  • Cows and sheep are responsible for 37% of the total methane generated by human activity, through their ruminating guts and decomposing waste. Methane has a global warming impact 28-36 times higher than carbon dioxide over a 100 years.
Credit: CNN

Water Use: 

  • 70% of the world's fresh water is used for agriculture.
  • Almost a third of the total municipal and industrial waste produced every year in the U.S. comes from farms. One dairy farm with 2,500 cows produces as much waste as a city with around 411,000 residents.

Land Use: 

  • 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.
  • For every 10 kilograms of grain we feed cattle, we get 1 kilogram of beef in return.
  • 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?

Vegetarian:

  • 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. 

Vegan:

  • Just like a vegetarian diet, a vegan diet is good for both your health and your wallet.
  • Read here for information about "vegan meats."
  • 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.
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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. Also check out this article about great meat substitutes.
  • Stop Eating Beef (and Other Red Meat). Beef has more than six times higher greenhouse gas intensity than poultry on a by-serving basis. Cattle are the species responsible for the most emissions, representing about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions. 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

  • Meet Free Monday (by Paul McCartney). Read more about the benefits of this campaign here. 
  • Vegan Before 6 (VB6). This one is similar to Meat Free 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.

Would you consider reducing your meat consumption? Let me know via email or in the comments below!

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Credit: ASAP Science, YouTube 

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