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Want to address climate change? Start with your sandwich

Camille Crittenden, Executive Director, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute | November 28, 2022

As COP27 met this month, the looming effects of climate change are again in the headlines. Devastating wildfires, hurricanes, droughts and sea level rise now affect more than 6 in 10 Americans within their local communities. Billions of dollars have been committed through the Inflation Reduction Act and various state measures, including California’s most recent budget, which provides $37 billion for climate-related projects. Within this total, $185 million will go to the University of California to promote action-oriented research for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Drought illustration.

Photo by RODNAE Productions:

Amid the necessary focus on technical and infrastructure strategies – increasing energy efficiency in buildings, expanding the infrastructure for electric vehicles, reducing air travel and the like – less attention has been devoted to a deceptively simple solution: reduce meat consumption.

Although the suggestion is straightforward, it is not easily implemented for a variety of political, financial and cultural reasons. But the data overwhelmingly suggests that reshaping what we eat would have a powerful effect on the future of our planet.

How did we get here? Agricultural subsidies to the beef industry and to support the crops fed to livestock far outweigh those to other crops and products. Marketing from these industries has persuaded millions that they would perish without sufficient protein provided by animal sources. (By the way, most Americans are victims of too much protein rather than too little.) The U.S. government subsidizes the meat and dairy industries to the tune of $38 billion per year; the true cost of a $5 hamburger is closer to $13. If the same level of subsidy were applied to, say, bell peppers, they would cost $1.90 per pound rather than $5! Because of this subsidy regime, consumers are faced with unbalanced choices between cheap hamburgers and more expensive salads or healthful foods.

But arguments in favor of meat as an affordable, convenient source of protein should be weighed against the long-term damage the industry is causing to the environment and the gross inefficiencies in growing plants to be fed to animals, which are then fed to humans. 

Among many environmental harms of raising beef and pork for food, consider just the demands on water resources. Whether measuring gallons of water per ounce of flesh or per calorie, animals outpace plant protein sources in their water requirements in nearly every case. For instance, it takes 106 gallons of water to raise one ounce of beef, 41 gallons for pork and 16 gallons for chicken. But what about almonds? Even this thirsty nut requires only 97 gallons per ounce of shelled almond; walnuts require about the same and pistachios about one quarter. One ounce of almonds provides about four times the calories of the same amount of beef. Indeed, the water footprint for beef is 20 times larger than for cereal crops. 

Water is often used in the U.S. for crops like alfalfa, destined to be shipped overseas to China or the Middle East to meet their growing demands for beef, compounding the carbon footprint associated with the global transportation industry while also depleting groundwater resources in the American Southwest. Is this really in our national security interests, to prioritize climate-unfriendly nutritional choices abroad over our own population’s health and livelihoods?

The Colorado River, which supplies water to seven states and nearly 40 million Americans, has been at drought levels for years. The depletion of water from this major source threatens the agricultural industries that rely on it as well as the electricity produced through its dams. Lake Mead, held in check by the Hoover Dam, is now at 25% of capacity, and the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell is likely to reach “dead pool,” when no water will pass through it, by 2023. What to do? Research suggests that if Americans would abstain from eating meat one day a week, it would save the water equivalent to the Colorado River’s flow every year. One day a week – to save the lives and economic infrastructure of much of the American Southwest.

Other negative effects of large-scale meat production have been well documented, including those with implications for environmental justice in communities that live near the sewage lagoons associated with industrial pork and chicken production. Runoff from the pig farms pollutes nearby watersheds and introduces pathogens to the water supply and atmosphere. Attempts to regulate these harmful emissions have met with limited success, to the detriment of people living in the regions nearby.

Given the increased urgency to address the climate crisis and the overwhelming data regarding the harmful environmental effects of eating meat, it is surprising that clarion calls to eat less of it are not louder from climate activists. In a classic “tragedy of the commons,” individuals may feel their personal dietary decisions are inconsequential. And yet policy makers don’t have the political will nor companies the financial incentive to pull the levers within their grasp either. With a problem so entrenched and daunting, how can it be addressed? 

Action must come from all corners: individuals, organizations and the government. Using principles of harm reduction, consider individual choice. If you eat meat three times a day, try just once a day. If you eat meat every day, try just five days a week. If you can’t live without bacon, don’t! Eat unlimited bacon but select vegetarian choices for the rest of your menu. Try a few alt-meat products or one of the expanding varieties of plant-based milk, an industry that is expected to reach nearly $43 billion within a few years.

Restaurants and the food industry should offer more vegetarian selections. Research shows that increasing the share of the menu devoted to vegetarian items increases sales of those items without affecting overall sales. Cafes should incorporate pricing for plant-based milk into their overall costs without charging extra. Customers who are vegan or lactose intolerant should not be made to subsidize the dairy drinkers who are burdening the planet’s resources. Using principles of choice architecture, food vendors can nudge consumers into making more climate-friendly choices without banning more harmful foods outright.

Fresh vegetables.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch:

Here at home, the University of California could demonstrate stronger leadership about food choices on campuses and in UC facilities. Proposed updates to UC’s “Policy on Sustainable Practices” suggest: “Each campus and health location will procure 25% plant-based food by 2030 and strive to procure 30% by 2030.” While far from bold, the policy at least sets measurable targets, despite the leisurely timeline for implementation. 

Of course, a shift to greater adoption of plant-based diets should be financially equitable, not reserved for those who have a larger food budget, especially amid our growing understanding of food insecurity and the increasing prevalence of food deserts. This is why policymakers must step up. They must work with the agricultural industries to adjust farm subsidies and water policies to address the bigger picture. In addition to revising subsidies, lawmakers could impose taxes on producers or consumers, taking a cue from the anti-sugared-beverage campaign, or create taxes on pollution or carbon to address the issue farther upstream. Despite the short election cycles, they must shift their attention to serving the broader population over the long term rather than catering to immediate special interests. 

These arguments for a plant-based diet focus on the environmental impact of livestock production and meat consumption. Additional justifications for a shift include improved personal health, improved conditions for caged animals, improved human rights and labor rights to reduce unsafe working conditions at slaughterhouses, and more. With millions in funding available and growing momentum to improve the climate, let’s start with our own plates.