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Healthy Foods

Today, plant-centered eating is no longer a fringe dietary choice. (Photo: Paige Green)

Eating in the Age of Climate Crisis

Shifting to a plant-based diet, particularly one centered on whole foods not ultra-processed products, could reduce food’s associated greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 73 percent.

Erin EberleAnna Lappé

If you tuned in to gawk at the creative costuming of this season’s Met Gala, you may have done so knowing every celebrity crossing the beige carpet was going on to dine on a meat-free meal. Download Buzzfeed’s Tasty recipe app and the first prompt will ask: “Quick question: Are you a vegetarian?” Pull up a chair at New York City’s three-Michelin-star restaurant Eleven Madison Park and your options will now extend across the vegetable kingdom—but not beyond. These are just some of the signals of a cultural shift away from meat and toward plant-centered cuisines, by default. But addressing the environmental and health impacts of the livestock industry will take more than just changing the menus of high-end restaurants and some app nudging. Thankfully, we’re seeing strategies that work to make this change at scale emerging around the world. 

A recent analysis on land use estimated that livestock production uses 83 percent of the world’s farmland, yet provides only 18 percent of the world’s total calories.

Fifty years ago, when Anna’s mother’s book Diet for a Small Planet made the ecological and political case for plant-centered eating, the text was considered radical for daring to suggest we could survive without meat at the heart of our plates. Today, plant-centered eating is no longer a fringe dietary choice. 

Five decades on, the health benefits of plant-centered diets are increasingly well understood. Since 2015, the world’s foremost cancer research agency has warned of the cancer risk from processed meat—like hot dogs and sausages. And, this year researchers documented how replacing meat and poultry in diets with nuts, legumes, and whole grains can dramatically reduce risk of heart disease and overall mortality. 

The evidence of the environmental impacts of industrial meat production—not to mention the worker and animal welfare implications—are also increasingly well understood. Analysis has shown that meat, particularly beef, has a particularly hefty toll on the climate and land use. Shifting to a plant-based diet, particularly one centered on whole foods not ultra-processed products, could reduce food’s associated greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 73 percent, one study published in Science found. And a recent analysis on land use estimated that livestock production uses 83 percent of the world’s farmland, yet provides only 18 percent of the world’s total calories. In the United States, the meat industry—in large part because so much cropland is devoted to animal feed—is tied to the lion’s share of nitrogen leaching, creating a devastating dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, predicted to be the largest on record this year. 

Despite this toll, global meat consumption is on the rise. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that unless consumption trends change livestock production could be up as much as 76 percent by mid-century. While we are seeing signs of the popularizing of planet-friendly foods, how do we move at speed and scale to address the health and environmental crises we face? 

One way is to change food environments so planet-aligned eating is easier. This is just what Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO) made possible in 2007 when, alarmed by the climate impacts of beef production, the company committed to reducing its beef purchases by 25 percent over five years at its cafés in cultural institutions and on college and corporate campuses around the country. By 2012, BAMCO had reduced beef from the 250 million meals it had been serving every year by 33 percent. “We did it without customers even noticing,” said Maisie Ganzler, BAMCO’s Chief Strategy and Brand Officer. Since then, the company has continued to explore ways to improve the health and environmental impact of its supply chain, focusing on “less meat, better meat,” as Ganzler put it, and looking for ways to make the healthier options the default. Campaigns like DefaultVeg, housed by Better Food Foundation, are encouraging more institutions to publicly commit to planet-friendly food policies

Another strategic pathway is tapping the power of procurement. Every year, the U.S. spends billions of dollars on food—from the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs to purchases by the Department of Defense. Making changes to those procurement choices is a powerful lever to shift food supply. 

The Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) has been modeling what that kind of shift could look like at the city and county level. First adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2012, the GFPP is a purchasing policy that emphasizes food centered in the values of health, local economies, worker well-being, animal welfare, and the environment. When Oakland Unified School District, with approximately 50,000 students over 70% of whom qualify for free-reduced price meals, adopted the program in 2016, the District reduced animal products by nearly 30 percent and increased meat purchased from local sources raising livestock organically and more humanely. Friends of the Earth analyzed the results and found a 14 percent reduction in the Districts’ “carbon footprint” and a 6 percent reduction in its “water footprint.” What’s more, the District saved money and upped student satisfaction. We’re seeing this approach spreading around the world: Dine in any one of Berlin’s university cafeterias this fall and you’ll soon find ample plant-centered offerings thanks to student advocacy. 

Another key tactic will be increasingly pressuring governments to regulate pollution from industrial animal agriculture with the same sense of urgency as advocates for climate action are pushing for gas and oil industry regulations. The nonprofit advocacy group Public Justice, for instance, recently launched a campaign calling on the EPA to list and regulate industrial dairy and hog operations under the Clean Air Act. The group’s argument rests in part on the fact that these confined animal feeding operations account for 13 percent of the U.S. total emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after emission. 

It’s been fifty years since Diet for a Small Planet was first published. Today, eating from the book’s anniversary edition’s refreshed, planet-centered recipes will be a quotidian act; not the heretical proposition of 1971. While we celebrate the mainstreaming of the book’s message, without the massive systems change we and many others around the world are advocating for, the global meat industry threatens to blow our carbon budget. To avert this outcome, we can celebrate the culture shift toward planet- and plant-centered foods and, at the same time, fight for the policies and regulations we need so that in 50 years, we’ll look back on this moment as a critical juncture: This was the moment we collectively tipped the scales towards a more sustainable diet, by default.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Erin Eberle

Erin Eberle is a creative strategist, activist, and writer working at the intersection of food and social justice. They can be found on Twitter: @ErinEberle

Anna Lappe

Anna Lappé

Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, most recently of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It and a contributor to the 50th anniversary edition of her mother’s Diet for a Small PlanetShe is a founder of Real Food Media and works with funders to support food system transformation around the world. 

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