Make a dent in emissions with one dietary switch

Beans beef meat greenhouse gas emissions climate change

Make a dent in emissions with one dietary switch

By Stephanie Sides

At CCL, we work tirelessly on a climate solution that’s big and broad enough to match the big, broad challenge of climate change: a Carbon Fee and Dividend. In the meantime, though, many people want to know what actions they can take as individuals to address the problem. Everything from buying electric cars to using light emitting diode (LED) light bulbs can help, but one action that would really make a dent is adjusting your diet.

If everyone ate beans instead of beef

According to Helen Harwatt, an environmental nutritionist, one of the ways individuals can have the greatest impact has to do with the food they eat. A recent article in “The Atlantic” magazine describes a study in which she and a team of researchers calculated the potential impact of substituting beans for beef in our diets. The article claims that, with this one dietary change, the U.S. would make a huge dent in meeting greenhouse-gas emission goals.

Harwatt and her team from Oregon State University, Bard College, and Loma Linda University found that if every person in the U.S. substituted beans for beef, our country, without making any other change, could achieve 46-74% of the greenhouse-gas emission reductions needed to meet the target pledged by President Obama in 2009. And we would still be able to eat chicken, pork, eggs, and cheese.

Less clearcutting

Harwatt describes a typical feedlot with about 40,000 cattle that consume 950 metric tons of soybean feed every day as they get fattened up and readied for slaughter. She says that cows not only emit a lot of greenhouse gas but consume far more calories in beans than they yield in meat. Because of their lesser yield in calories, to produce the needed amount of soybeans to feed them requires more clearcutting of forests than if people just ate the beans instead.

Freeing up arable land to grow other crops

Now extrapolate this scenario across the world. Harwatt cites a U.N. statistic claiming that 33% of farmable land on Earth is used to grow livestock feed and produce meat. If the U.S. made the suggested dietary switch, we could free up 42% of the land for other crops.

Better health and less “ecoanxiety”

Harwatt says making this dietary change is an easy thing for people to do independently of formal government policies. And it’s less onerous than making a wholesale switch to vegetarianism and veganism. It also makes possible two other benefits: It can lead to improved health from incorporating more plants in our diet. And it can help address ecoanxiety, an emerging condition of dread and helplessness identified by the American Psychological Association in 2011, that many of us feel as we watch concrete evidence of serious climate degradation from recent hurricanes and wildfires.

Addressing the meat-heavy diets of our pets

We can also apply this change one step further to what we feed our pets. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times reviewed a paper published in PLOS One that determined that our dogs’ and cats’ consumption of meat and other animal products “adds a sizable, and largely overlooked, climate cost.”

Gregory Okin, a UCLA geographer, calculated that cats and dogs in the U.S. (estimated at 163 million, about half the human population) consume about 33% of the calories derived from animal products compared with people. Though their portions are smaller, this percent is so high because their diets tend to be more meat-intensive than ours. Producing this amount of animal product accounts for 64 million tons of methane and nitrous oxide, which Okin compares to driving 13.6 million cars a year. As with human beef consumption, you can extrapolate these figures to developing countries, like China where pet ownership is on the rise. Okin also cites a worrisome (and apparently unnecessary) trend of including more meat in pet food.

While it’s impractical to think all of us would give up meat for good, it’s useful to consider how much we might cut back to do our part to address climate change.

Effect of Carbon Fee and Dividend

As detailed in this piece from One Green Planet, animal agriculture is a process that’s pretty heavy on the fossil fuels. It takes fossil fuels to produce the feed for livestock, to power the machines on a factory farm, and to slaughter, package and transport the meat. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, to produce one calorie of animal protein requires about 10 times the fossil fuel compared with one calorie of plant protein (Pimentel 2003).

With a Carbon Fee and Dividend in place, it’s conceivable that we could see an increase in meat prices because of how much fossil fuel is involved in animal agriculture. With your dividend check, you could certainly still afford to keep buying your favorite steak at the grocery store—or you could double your positive climate impact by reaching for the beans instead.

Stephanie Sides
Stephanie Sides is a freelance writer who works primarily with academics in science, medicine, and engineering.