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Most Americans Don't Consider Environmental Impacts of Food Choices, but Are Willing to Eat More Plants, Study Finds

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One way to improve the environmental impact of how people eat is to make it a point of conversation. TommL / Getty Images

Recent books like We Are the Weather advocate for considering how our dietary choices affect the climate crisis, but new research shows that most Americans are not discussing the environmental impacts of their diets with friend and family, as Inverse reported.


The bright side is that almost everyone surveyed said they were willing to eat more fruits and vegetables, while more than half said they were willing to cut down on red meat and choose plant-based alternatives, according to a new report of more than a thousand adults in the U.S. by Yale University and the nonprofit Earth Day Network, as The Verge reported.

The report, Climate Change and the American Diet, found that most survey participants noted a lack of information as the greatest barrier to making plant-based choices. That knowledge could influence nutrition guidelines and food marketing, if policy makers were willing to advocate for climate-friendly policies and stand up to the powerful beef and dairy lobbies. As Inverse reported, making facts about plant-based meat alternatives more accessible could make a big difference, and food labels are the ideal medium to share information.

"If we do not make the connection between food that we're eating and climate change, we're doing ourselves a disservice," said Jillian Semaan, food and environment director at the Earth Day Network to The Verge. "The most immediate action anyone can take [on climate change] today is to look at what they're putting on their plate and what they're putting in their body."

One way to improve the environmental impact of how people eat is to make it a point of conversation. The survey, which gathered answers from more than 1,000 Americans representing a cross-section of society, found that 70 percent rarely or never talk about the environmental impact of their food choices with friends or family. Nearly two-thirds of the Americans surveyed report having never been asked to eat more plant-based foods, and more than half rarely or never hear about the topic in the media, according to a summary from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

"Many American consumers are interested in eating a more healthy and climate-friendly diet," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in a press release accompanying the new report. "However, many simply don't know yet which products are better or worse — a huge communication opportunity for food producers, distributors and sellers."

In addition to the 70 percent of people who do not talk about the climate impact of the food they eat, there were some other surprising trends that Inverse reported:

  • 94 percent: Are willing to eat more fruits and vegetables
  • 54 percent: Are willing to cut down on red meat
  • 91 percent: Are "moderately" concerned about health
  • 67 percent: Are open to plant-based foods — fruit, vegetables, and dairy alternatives — but only if they taste better than their animal-based alternatives
  • 63 percent: Would increase eating of plant-based food, if it costs less than meat
  • 30 percent: Hear information about how food affects global warming at least once a month
  • 50+ percent: Want to hear more information about food's environmental impact
  • 50 percent: Would eat more plant-based foods if their friends and family did
  • 13 percent: Would eat more plant-based foods if celebrities did

As The Verge pointed out, meat usually has a much larger carbon footprint than fruits, vegetables and grains. Raising animals for food is resource intensive, taxing land and water supplies. Demand for cattle has led to massive clear-cutting of the Amazon rainforest. There's ample evidence that for people who live in affluent countries, cutting back on meat is the single best thing they can do to fight the climate crisis.

"This data is a wake-up call for the climate movement," said Semaan in a press release. "Animal agriculture is one of the major drivers of our climate crisis, we need to provide people with the relevant information that connects food choices, animal agriculture and climate change."

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