With America preparing to exit the Paris climate accord, mayors and governors are setting their own climate goals, protests are erupting, and social media is all atwitter. But the reality is that combating climate change is largely a matter of personal responsibility—and one of the easiest and best steps we can take concerns what we put on our plates.
Take protein, for example. Worldwide, over 80 billion land animals are farmed for food. To produce just a single pound of meat, those animals may each eat upwards of 15 pounds of feed—meaning mass meat production funnels far more resources through animals than it gets out of them. One report from the World Resources Institute found that even the most efficient sources of meat convert only around 11% of feed energy into human food.
And to grow all that animal feed, the industry is constantly converting more native lands to agricultural operations—burning and clear-cutting the Amazon and other forests to make way for feed fields. Today, a whopping 30% of Earth's landmass goes to meat, dairy, and egg production, according to the United Nations. As the UN also reports, livestock production causes “an even larger contribution" to climate change "than the transportation sector worldwide.” That’s right: Factory farmed animals contribute more to climate change than all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships combined.
And those calculations don’t even include seafood—which is a huge omission. According to data from 1999 to 2007, between 0.97 and 2.74 trillion fish were taken from the oceans annually, dredged up in nets many miles long that are pulled by ships burning huge quantities of fossil fuels. This means that emissions from animal proteins in our diet—land and sea combined—are substantially higher than the already very high numbers commonly reported.
It’s also a thirsty system: According to Water Footprint Network data, it takes over 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single steak and over 800 gallons to produce a single glass of milk. Nearly 600 gallons are used to produce just one pound of chicken meat, and nearly 400 gallons go into just one egg.
But we all need protein, and growing, processing, and transporting food of any kind requires resources. So what would the impact on climate change be if we simply processed more plant products into protein-packed foods, rather than funneling so many through animals first?
The Environmental Defense Fund reports that if each American replaced chicken with plant-based foods at just one meal per week, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U.S. roads.
On the whole, “the production of animal-based foods is associated with higher greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based foods,” confirms a study published in the journal Climate Change. Thus, concludes the report, reducing our meat consumption would lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Indeed, in order to curb climate change, we must eat more plant-based foods and fewer animal-based foods. And fortunately, the free market is helping us do exactly that. Companies are now sprouting up left and right to produce meat-like but meat-free foods.
Meat-free chicken and burgers that hold nearly the same taste and texture as their meaty counterparts are gaining in popularity. At mainstream grocery stores nationwide, one can even buy fish-free seafood and vegan tartar sauce to top it with. Indeed, the sector is growing rapidly: The plant-based meat sector is expected to reach $5.2 billion by 2020, and new data from Market Research Future shows the plant-based cheese sector will reach $3.5 billion soon after. As well, non-dairy milks (like almond and soy) now account for more than 10% of all fluid milk sales in the U.S., with sales of cow’s milk projected to drop 18% between 2015 and 2020.
There are also whole, plant-based foods readily available to help us each curb climate change. We can replace the chicken in our chicken salad with chickpeas. We can try black bean burgers, and fill our sandwiches with sautéed Portobello mushrooms instead of turkey for a meaty, smoky texture and flavor. The list of options is only as limited as our creativity in the kitchen.
With the marketplace making it easier to eat more plant-based foods, it’s no surprise that movements like “Meatless Monday” have taken off. Programs like bestselling author Mark Bittman’s “VB6” (eating vegan before 6 p.m.) are growing. Conscious consumers are making the world a better place by following the three “R”s of eating: “reducing” and “replacing” consumption of animal products and “refining” our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards. These types of ideas have become mainstream.
We clearly each have the power to show the world—starting with our families, friends, and neighbors—that we needn’t wait for Washington in the war on the climate change. As individuals, each of us can rise to meet climate change’s challenges by adjusting our own habits to create a cleaner world.
Matthew Prescott is senior director of food policy for The Humane Society of the United States and author of Food is the Solution: What to Eat to Save the World, forthcoming in spring 2018.