An investigation by Izzie Hackett, a student of the 2021 spring semester Climate Change and Global Inequality GOA class
As the global population is consistently increasing, the threat of greenhouse gas emissions continues to grow. The food industry accounts for about 26% percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and it emits billions of tons of carbon every year (Ritchie). Livestock management and production accounts for about 3/4 of all agricultural emissions (Springmann). Pollution as a result of poorly managed food waste and food packaging waste are also detrimental for the environment. Meat alternatives and plastic alternatives exist, but they are not accessible for everyone; there is no universal solution to the environmental harms caused by food production. Everyone must do what they can, so what are the options?
Food Industry Emissions – An Overview
In 2010, the food industry emitted over 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide, and within 30 years, scientists expect that this level of greenhouse gas emissions will increase by at least 80% (Springmann). Animal product production is by far the most damaging aspect of the food industry, as it makes up 3/4 of the sector’s GHG emissions, contributes to the overuse of bluewater, and puts pressure on croplands (Springmann). These issues are primarily caused by low feed conversion and the digestive tracks of livestock; enteric fermentation and manure emissions are significant contributors. While staple crops (crops that are regularly grown and relied on for an overall region’s dietary needs) usually require more bluewater, they emit less greenhouse gases than animal products when comparing the impacts per kg of product (Springmann). Animal products, particularly beef, also require significantly more land for cultivating lower numbers of calories and protein for the general population (Ranganathan, Waite).
“If cattle were able to form their own nation, they would rank third behind China and the United States among the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters” (Ranganathan, Waite).
Scientists estimate that a widespread reduction of meat and dairy consumption could significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions. However, vegan and vegetarian diets are not accessible for everyone, and scientists predict that they are not necessary for everyone to adopt. Let’s dive into this a little further.
Photo Taken by Jack Sloop
@jacksloop on social media
So yes, we need to globally reduce the amount of animal products consumed. However, veganism and/or vegetarianism are NOT a realistic options for everyone.
Practicing veganism does not always align with people who practice Indigenous cultures.
Some Native Cultures have practiced animal husbandry for thousands of years. Their methods of animal husbandry often include reducing waste and not overconsuming; many Natives who use their surrounding resources for their diet and lifestyle value the Earth and ensure that their practices do not deplete populations (“Native Tradition v. Militant Veganism”). Native practices do not contribute the same level of harm that the agricultural industry does. Militant veganism against Native people and culture is often racist; it ignores the importance of protecting Native culture and history. Additionally, many Native diets are already plant rich – especially because they avoid overconsumption. Targeting Natives is racist and takes the blame off of the government, corporations, and the overall agricultural sector. Native populations will be severely impacted by the results of climate change, as they rely on the land for their livelihoods and economies (“Tribal Nations”).
Practicing veganism/vegetarianism is sometimes inaccessible to people living in low-income areas because of food deserts.
Food deserts are areas where healthy, affordable food options are limited, due to a lack of supermarkets. People living in food deserts are generally limited to fast food and retailer food options, rather than grocery store items like produce. Food deserts are much more common in areas with high levels of poverty than wealthier areas, so minority communities are disproportionately impacted (Brooks). Since grocery stores are scarce and far in these areas, people must have resources to access them. Unfortunately, many people do not have the time, money, or transportation, especially when fast food is easier and cheaper. These areas are not a result of the people living in them, but they are the result of systemic racism and inequality. It is important to recognize that militant veganism toward economically disadvantaged communities can be racist and classist, and we must find solutions to make healthy and sustainable options more accessible and affordable.
The restriction of veganism/vegetarianism is sometimes too extreme for people with eating disorders.
While veganism and vegetarianism cannot cause eating disorders, individuals who are prone to eating disorders can be triggered by the extreme restriction of these diets. Teens are especially likely to use these diets as a cover for eating disorders, since they are a generally socially acceptable way to restrict. With the number of teens suffering from disordering teens on the rise, it is important to promote reduced animal product consumption in a mindful way. Veganism and vegetarianism can also be socially isolating, which could also cause issues. Forcing veganism onto anyone, especially those prone to mental health issues, can have grave consequences. We must promote balance and the notion of doing what you can. Check on your vegan and vegetarian friends frequently; be careful not to make assumptions but let them know their health is valued.
Once again, we must recognize that many scientists claim that any widespread reduction of animal product consumption will help us fight climate change.
Scientists from the World Resource Institute claim that veganism and vegetarianism do not need to be completely adopted by everyone. People who are able and willing to adopt these practices are encouraged to, but these practices should not be forced on anybody. The goal should not be converting the entire world to these practices. We need to make reduced consumption accessible, put reduction into practice, and create other technologies to make farming more sustainable. Cutting out all animal product consumption would not save climate change on its own, and it is definitely not a realistic solution. We need to engineer technology for reducing emissions across all sectors, and scientists are already working on this. Read this study about how changing the diets of cows can reduce their methane production.
We’ve learned that militant veganism does more harm than good. So, what can we do?
Firstly, follow my project’s Instagram to see consistent information on sustainable diets and accessibility. I will soon be posting fun recipes with easy, sustainable ingredients. @sustainablelunchesforall
There are many micro solutions, as well as macro solutions. Some solutions are also both.
- Promote a “flexitarian” diet – reducing meat and dairy consumption without harsh rules of restriction
- Choose plant-based alternatives when they are available (a Beyond burger rather than a beef burger)
- Food transport emissions make up a very small percentage of food’s total emissions (6% worldwide), but try to buy locally when possible – support small farmers and fishers rather than large corporations
- If you enjoy gardening, growing your own food can be a satisfying way to help the planet
- 1/3 of food produced is wasted, even though millions of people around the world go hungry, so check out this guide to starting your own compost
- Food packaging accounts for a lot of plastic pollution, so try reusable alternatives when possible – check out these produce bags for grocery shopping
- Encourage your school to start a compost bin and use compostable packaging or encourage your school to adopt “Meatless Mondays”
- Recognize that not everyone has the same privileges, and just because you can integrate sustainability does not mean everyone can. Be compassionate and refrain from blaming! Remember that you don’t have moral superiority because of your diet choices – there is no good and bad food – and people are not automatically bad people if they cannot adopt a plant-based diet
- Encourage politicians to help change food deserts and expand the accessibility of sustainability
- When you are of legal age, VOTE! Do your research on candidates, whether it’s for the presidential election or your local government election. Vote for candidates that prioritize climate related issues.
- Keep reading and learning about how human behavior impacts climate change, and remember that there are many other fields in which you can reduce your footprint
- Engage with the scientific community about current research
- If you are interested in a scientific career path, contribute to the ongoing research about technology that will mitigate climate change
- Encourage your family, friends, teachers, and elected officials to engage with the scientific community and be receptive to new information
- Do what you can!
- Respect what others can and cannot do
Lastly, keep the dialogue going. Talk and listen to your friends, family, and teachers.
In order to continue the conversation, please check out my Padlet and share your experience with the accessibility of sustainability. My answer is already there as an example to show you that you are not alone in this conversation.
If you want to read more about what you can do, check out the resources I used while researching. Always use multiple sources!
Askew, Katy. “Food waste and plastic pollution: ‘The two key sustainability drivers are carbon and circularity.‘” Food Navigator, 31 July 2020.
Brooks, Kelly. “Research Shows Food Deserts More Abundant in Minority Neighborhoods.” John Hopkins Magazine, Spring 2014.
Dennett, Carrie. “Veganism and eating disorders: Is there a link?” The Washington Post, 16 July 2020.
Gibbens, Sarah. “Eating Meat Has ‘Dire’ Consequences for the Planet, Says Report.” Environment, National Geographic, 10 Feb. 2021.
Magill, Bobby. “Studies Show Link Between Red Meat and Climate Change.” Climate Central, 20 Apr. 2016.
‘Native Tradition v. Militant Veganism.” Lakota’s People Law Project. 12 December 2018.
Ranganathan, Janet. Waite, Richard. “Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts.” World Resources Institute, 20 April 2016.
Ritchie, Hanna. “Food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.” Our World in Data, 6 November 2019.
Ross, Carolyn. “Vegetarianism and Eating Disorders.” Psychology Today, 1 Nov 2012.
“Tribal Nations.” US Climate Resilience Toolkit. Last modified 28 September 2020.
“What are food deserts, and how do they impact health?” Medical News Today. 22 June 2020.