In 2010, when I was on tour promoting my book Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, I felt lonely. Not because no one was showing up for my book talks, they were. And not because I was alone; with my nine-month-old daughter in tow, I was never by myself. I felt lonely because, back then, there were very few of us talking about the connections between food and climate change, despite the fact that the global food system—from field to plate to landfill—is responsible for as much as one third of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).
In just a few years that has changed. Somewhat.
Today, many serious “big green” environmental groups are looking at how the food system can reduce its emissions and how agriculture can be harnessed for the cause. Many food-focused groups are also increasingly seeing the work they do–to promote organic farming, to fight petrochemicals and synthetic fertilizer, to protect biodiversity–as part of promoting climate solutions.
More ordinary people are drawing these connections, too. I witnessed this firsthand at the People’s Climate March in September, when I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with 410,000 eaters, food activists, and farmers proudly waving signs with sentiments like “cook organic, not the planet!”
Still, there’s much awareness-raising to be done, as a new report out recently from the London-based think tank, Chatham House, tells us. The report is based on a first-ever poll of 1,000 people from 12 countries—including Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Africa, the UK, and the U.S.—on their attitudes about climate and food.
The folks at Chatham were especially curious to learn just how aware people are about the climate impact of meat production, since the livestock industry is a key culprit in emissions. Responsible for 14.5 percent of the total global GHGs, the livestock sector is responsible for as much emissions as every single train, plane, and car on the planet, combined.
The survey also tested people’s awareness specifically about beef and dairy, since these products account for “65 percent of the GHGs emitted by livestock,” reports Chatham. Based on average global assessments, Chatham notes, emissions from beef are “around 150 times those of soy products, by volume, and even the least emissions-intensive meat products–pork and chicken–produce 20–25 times more GHGs.”
Certain countries are particularly critical to this conversation, especially China, a country expected to grow its demand for meat and dairy in the coming decades “over four times that of the next fastest-growing consumer, Brazil,” according to Chatham.
So, what did the researchers hear in their interviews?
Eighty-three percent of respondents agreed that “human activities contribute to climate change.” But among believers, only one-third see the meat industry as a significant contributor. By comparison, two-thirds pointed the finger at transportation, even though “the contribution to overall emissions is almost equal between the two sectors,” says Chatham.
The Chatham poll also explored whether learning the facts would shift food choices. What they found was a clear and resounding yes in countries like Brazil,Italy, India, and France. While in the U. S., only 26 percent indicated that it would impact their choices.
It was particularly encouraging that people in Brazil and India–countries slated to see big growth in meat and dairy consumption in the coming years–showed high levels of accepting both the reality of climate change and the willingness to consider the climate in reducing meat consumption.
One reason consumer change is so key is because we’re in a major “policy vacuum” regarding this issue. The industry is largely unchecked by national regulators and absent from scrutiny in climate negotiations, the report notes. What’s more the food industry is heavily subsidized: Chatham estimates livestock subsidies in OECD countries added up to a whopping $53 billion in 2013, which has the effect of incentivizing more meat production. It also notes national governments have by and large excluded livestock from emissions reductions targets. (The U.S. is no exception: agriculture is exempt from many Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations regarding emissions).
Chatham makes a strong case that consumer action is critical, but as groups and governments consider a focus on food, there are two important caveats.
First, the messaging must be sophisticated. Cutting back on carbon-intensive foods—like feedlot beef—does no good if we don’t simultaneously talk about better choices. If you replace your burger with processed food filled with palm oil from Indonesia and high-fructose corn syrup from the chemical-intensive American cornbelt, you may have not reduced carbon “foodprint” at all.
We can also stress not all beef is created equally. Scientific literature is mixed on the relative benefits of grassfed beef versus feedlot cattle, but some recent studies suggest that grazing can offset the climate impact of pasture-raised beef, for example. Of course, this potential needs to be put in context of the planet’s carrying capacity for grassfed cattle and the simple fact that in most countries pastured beef is largely unavailable.
Second, as we focus on consumers, we must not let industry and government off the hook. Agribusiness companies driving rainforest destruction to grow animal feed need to be in the hot seat alongside energy giants like Chevron and BP, while meat producers, like Tyson and Smithfield, must also be held accountable for their climate impacts. And we should speak up to ensure that governments monitor and regulate the worst climate-change culprits in the food sector, not subsidize them.
“It’s encouraging that people in emerging economies are open to changing how they eat once they know about the meat-climate connection,” Mia MacDonald, executive director of Brighter Green, said in an email about the Chatham survey. “But in these places, policies that would create more sustainable, humane food systems—and not replicate the U.S. model—are really lacking. And agribusinesses are very powerful. As a result, people, local and global environments, and animals (both domesticated and wild) are all losing out.”
This report is an important step in raising awareness about food-sector emissions—especially important because, as Chatham notes, emissions from this sector will increase by 30 percent by 2050 if we don’t change these trends. But as we sharpen our focus on our plates, let’s keep our eyes on politics, too.