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Carnivores and Climate Change

By: Roni Neff

You know what you ate this week—but do you know how it will affect climate change and the planet? As of today, you can use the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s newly launched website to get information on food carbon footprints.The “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health” helps users quantify the impacts of their current diets.Try adding up your meals’ impacts—you may be shocked, especially if you ate beef or cheese.

The carbon footprint of beef, for example, is 24.5 times higher than that for tomatoes. A 2008 study found that red meat and dairy comprise 48 percent of U.S. food-related greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).EWG’s analysis suggests that if the whole U.S. population committed to Meatless and cheeseless Monday (or otherwise gave up meat and cheese one day a week), the reduction in GHGs would be the same as that for driving 91 billion fewer miles, or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.Meatless Monday sounds to me like an easier goal, and I say that not only because CLF is affiliated with the program.Of course it is not either/or, and we need to cut all forms of GHGs.

Based on the idea that “All Meat is Not Created Equal,” EWG’s Kari Hamerschlag worked with a lifecycle analysis contractor to develop the “Eat Smart” chart that helps users identify relative GHGs of different animal products.According to their findings, lamb had the highest impacts, beef was second, and cheese was third.But given we don’t eat a lot of lamb, beef rates more attention.In this analysis, beef had double the emissions of pork, four times that of chicken, and over thirteen times that of the vegetarian proteins examined.(The EWG analysis did not allow comparisons between conventional and more sustainably produced meats, though other studies have shown mixed results.)

Here are seven valuable contributions from EWG’s analyses and website:

  • The climate change–meat connection is still important, and the stakes are getting higher. The Meat Eater’s Guide brings it back to our attention. (See “Yesterday’s dinner, tomorrow’s weather, today’s news? US newspaper coverage of food system contributions to climate change.”)
  • They provide US-based life cycle analysis information on GHG emissions for 20 products. While Europe, Australia and Japan are way ahead of us in developing lifecycle analyses, we can’t necessarily apply their estimates to the U.S. context, due to differences in process, weather, transport distance, etc.
  • The analysis was developed using solid methods. My CLF colleague Brent Kim and I served as reviewers for earlier versions of the Meat Eater’s Guide.EWG used well-accepted methods, hired a reputable lifecycle analysis firm, were very transparent about how they performed their analyses in their methods document, and the results come in near averages of those from other analyses.
  • The analysis examines “cradle to waste” emissions, rather than stopping at the retail level as so many studies do.In some cases, consumer transport and cooking represent a quite significant impact.Further, by looking at both “avoidable” and “unavoidable” food waste, the analysis takes account of the fact that a pound of meat in the store doesn’t add up to a pound of meat someone would eat, after you take out the bones, moisture and fat loss in cooking, and so on, not to mention the meat we throw out.
  • This resource improves and expands on the pool of online carbon footprint calculators. (In 2009 Brent and I published a review of online carbon footprint calculators, finding that only a quarter included food at all. Of those calculators that did include food, there was quite substantial variation in the information provided to users about their diets’ impacts, based in part on widely varying assumptions, including some not very sound ones.)
  • EWG encourages a specific action—signing a pledge to go meatless one day per week, such as Mondays.A recent meta-analysis supports the idea that “commitment” approaches such as this one are effective in environmental behavior change.
  • Finally, the EWG takes a broad view, in two ways.First, the website devotes significant space to educating about meat’s impacts beyond climate, including nutritional and environmental impacts.Second, the website encourages users not only to change their individual diets, but also to take action politically to seek broader, systemic change that can lead to deeper and more lasting cuts in emissions.

Of all human behaviors, diets are among the most challenging to alter.For some people, the idea of cutting back on meat is anathema. But for some people, knowing about the environmental impacts could help motivate change. Certainly it has for me. Others might be more likely to cut back on meat if there were changes in availability or price, in what foods are most available as “defaults,” or in social norms. (Meatless Monday is one program trying to change social norms.) We need a lot more research to help improve our messages and strategies.

We’re not all going to become vegans— and it is not necessary that we do.Eating less meat (and investing some of the $ savings in shifting to sustainably produced meats), making informed decisions when we do eat meat, and cutting back on “avoidable waste” can go a long way to reducing our carbon footprints.And we can cut back the driving too.Check out the EWG tool to help inform your food choices.

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