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Changing the Main Course of Climate Change

Insights + Opinion
A healthy vegan snack board of fruit, vegetables, dips, nuts and olives. Enrique Díaz / 7cero / Getty Images

By Chloë Waterman

As the Trump administration's dangerous deregulatory agenda leads us closer to climate catastrophe, cities, counties and businesses are stepping up to address the crisis. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg released their "Fulfilling America's Pledge" plan, laying out the top climate strategies for subnational governments and businesses, at the Global Climate Action Summit.


Unfortunately, their high-profile report omitted a major solution and a big component of the climate crisis: food consumption.

Agriculture produces an astounding one-third of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Meat and dairy alone generate about half of those food-related emissions—more than the combined tailpipe discharges from every plane, train, car, bus and boat around the world. We simply cannot meet our emissions reduction goals if we do not address meat and dairy consumption, even if all 10 strategies in the America's Pledge plan are successful. High meat-consuming countries like the U.S. must lead the way.

Combined, the world's top five meat and dairy companies create more emissions than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP. According to a July report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and GRAIN, only two of the top 35 meat and dairy companies have made robust commitments to reduce their supply chain emissions. None of the nine U.S. companies on the list—Tyson Foods, Cargill, Hormel Foods, Perdue Farms and others—even report their supply chain emissions.

These nine companies produce most of their meat in Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina and Georgia—states lacking progressive climate policies. However, the majority of their consumers live in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and other cities. As centers of consumption, cities must confront their role in driving factory farming.

That's why a coalition of 45 public health and environmental organizations wrote an open letter to the 280 cities and counties that are members of We Are Still In Coalition, urging them to incorporate meat and dairy reduction into their climate strategies.

Project Drawdown—a climate change mitigation project initiated by Paul Hawken and worked on by a team of more than 200 scholars, scientists, policymakers and activists—names "plant-rich diet" as the fourth most impactful climate mitigation strategy, just after reducing food waste, a related strategy also omitted by America's Pledge.

The most direct way cities, counties, universities and school districts can shift diets is by leveraging their massive purchasing power to buy more plant-based foods, measurably reducing their carbon footprint and improving health. For example, public schools serve seven billion meals a year. If every single public school swapped out a beef burger for a protein-rich veggie burger on the school lunch menu just once a month, it would save 1,407,533,657 pounds of CO2-eq, the equivalent of over 1.5 billion fewer miles driven.

In addition to public institutions slashing meat from their menus, the food industry must step up to the climate action plate. A recent report from Mighty Earth found that 19 of the 23 top U.S. food companies have no commitments for mitigating the environmental impacts of their meat supply. Large restaurant chains, grocery retailers and foodservice management companies like Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group should be tracking and reducing their supply chain carbon footprints and moving to plant-forward menus.

Climate-friendly diets are not only a high impact strategy—they are also cost-effective, making them an obvious place for cities, counties and businesses to focus their climate mitigation efforts. For example, a pilot analysis of Health Care Without Harm's "Balanced Menus: Less Meat Better Meat" program found that four San Francisco Bay Area hospitals collectively saved about $400,000 per year. A 2017 analysis from Friends of the Earth found that Oakland Unified School District saved $42,000 (and improved student meal satisfaction) by reducing the meat and dairy on their menus by 30 percent.

The Global Climate Action Summit took small steps toward realizing the value of shifting diets by announcing a new initiative to cut food sector emissions by 25 percent by 2030, including "Climate-friendly Diets" in its 30x30 Forests, Food, and Land Challenge and even serving plant-forward cuisine. Following the summit, California took a step of its own when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill making California the first state to require plant-based options in health care facilities and state prisons.

At the international level, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report released last week warned that the window for fending off the worst impacts of climate change is closing quickly and recommended "[limiting] demand for greenhouse-gas intensive foods through shifts to healthier and more sustainable diets." Yet, in contrast, America's Pledge missed a huge opportunity by omitting food consumption from the "Fulfilling America's Pledge" plan.

If we truly want to fulfill America's pledge and solve the climate crisis, we must move away from meat- and dairy-intensive diets. Cities, counties, states, businesses, universities, school districts and hospitals can lead the way by shifting toward plant-forward foods to change the main course of climate change and help rescue our ailing planet.

Chloë Waterman serves as senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth U.S. where she implements policy and markets campaigns to advance a sustainable and just food system.

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