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You don’t have to go plant-based to save the world

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There has been a lot of buzz recently about switching to a meatless or fully plant-based diet, not only for sustainability reasons but also for health benefits. Livestock production encompasses 14.5% of all human-related greenhouse gas emissions, with cattle making up for well over half of those emissions. Thus, eliminating the consumption of meat, or red meat specifically, to be more sustainable has been an easy push for climate change advocates. Additionally, a 2012 study revealed that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of certain chronic diseases, driving the movement against meat consumption.

However, the urge to completely eliminate meat from our diets is both quixotic and unwarranted. For anyone who enjoys eating meat and is considering eradicating it from their diet for health and or climate change reasons, you may be happy to hear that might not be the best solution. 

Instead of forcing people to radically change their consumption habits, I argue that we should focus on sourcing meat sustainably and finding creative ways to reduce, but not eliminate, mass meat consumption through institutional food providers.

The divisive topic of meat consumption begins with how the animal is raised. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have undeniably detrimental impacts on the environment, but CAFOs are not the only way to raise livestock effectively. Sustainable farming practices like regenerative agriculture involve livestock in a way that benefits the climate rather than harming it. This method requires animal manure to maintain soil fertility, which “restores the plant/soil microbiome” and provides “essential soil nutrients.” In contrast, the usage of artificial and synthetic fertilizers have had negative impacts on the environment. Thus, we need animals to maintain the health of our soil and the health of our plants, and we should be sourcing from farms who use livestock for regenerative growing practices. 

Aside from regenerative agriculture, there are even more ways to raise cows in sustainable ways. Blue Ocean Barns feeds cows a small amount of minimally processed natural seaweed alongside their normal intake to reduce their climate impact. This natural solution results in a reduction of methane output of over 70% from cows. Integrating solutions, like products sold by Blue Ocean Barns into widespread livestock practices, will allow climate-oriented meat consumers to continue to eat meat without the environmental harm or guilt. 

The health risks associated with eating meat have also been a controversial topic. Decades of research published by the American Heart Association, Dietary Guidelines for Americans and many more sources have urged the reduction of meat consumption for health concerns. Recently, however, researchers published in the Annals of Internal Medicine claimed that there is an insignificant health risk associated with eating red meat, in direct opposition to widely accepted dietary recommendations. Alternatively, maybe the health problem isn’t the fact that Americans are consuming meat, but rather that they are over-consuming meat, eating 3 times  as much red meat and poultry as the global average. Instead of trying to eliminate meat from our diets altogether, we should start with simply reducing consumption.

Colleges are taking up initiatives to reduce meat consumption in clever ways. Stanford has introduced the blended burger, a popular method of reducing meat while maintaining, and even enhancing, flavor. Additionally, Harvard has demonstrated success by partnering with the Mushroom Council to create blended meat dishes including beef chili, beef lasagna and meats for both tacos and burritos. This helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, saturated fat (by 31%), and calories (by 20%). The Menus of Change movement, founded by Harvard and the Culinary Institute of America, also encourages institutions to reduce meat consumption through creative ways such as the usage of “meat as a condiment.” 

Furthermore, institutions like Google have found ways to effectively integrate more sustainable practices when it comes to meat consumption on their campuses. They have also addressed the problem at the root by purchasing from a local farm that practices regenerative agriculture.

However, other institutions have not been as successful when taking the extreme route of cutting out meat completely. With just two weeks notice the Golden Globes decided to radically change its menu to completely plant-based to send a signal about the climate impact of meat products. This resulted in censure from many attendees and critics, who pointed out the hypocrisy in sending a message about climate change through food, while hundreds of “gas-guzzling” limos and private jets were used to travel to the awards ceremony. On an even larger scale, in 2018 WeWork announced that the company will not offer meat-based products in any of its offices or reimburse employee meals that include meat products. This has also faced backlash, with people claiming that this policy hinders cultural food practices when building relationships in new markets. Another popular initiative among institutional food providers is “Meatless Mondays,” which broadcasts the elimination of meats for meals served on Mondays. This initiative has caused bitter revolts and is not as effective as less-extreme methods of reduction. 

Instead, institutions should shift toward other strategies as focal points to highlight sustainable and healthy practices: strategies that source meat sustainably and integrate the reduction of meat in subtle, delicious and less extreme ways. Among these initiatives include expanding the association of the word “protein” to apply to other foods besides meats, utilizing meat blends (mixing meat or poultry with vegetables), and using meat as a supporting role or side dish. 

While some have more effective strategies than others, institutional food systems have an important role to play in impacting consumption at scale. Whether it be food at worksites, universities or other organizations, the decisions about where meat comes from and how it should be served has enormous potential to create massive change. On a daily basis, worksite foods cover millions of Americans, universities serve 750,000 meals and schools serve over 12 million lunches. Thus, it is important that individuals make changes on their own, but if there is any place to start in order to have a prominent impact, it would be with institutional food systems that have extensive purchasing power and influence.

Ultimately, it is unrealistic to think everyone will just give up meat. The real solution to reducing the potential health and climate implications of consuming meat is not in discouraging or shaming people from eating it, but rather by purchasing sustainable meat and making small, but powerful, reductions in meat consumption. Through savvy and sometimes unnoticeable tactics, we can easily decrease meat consumption both as individuals and through institutional avenues, rather than eliminating meat completely. So the next time someone lectures you on why you should be plant-based in order to save the world, let them know there are ways to eat meat sustainably, without causing detriment to the environment. 

Contact Elan Halpern at elanh ‘at’ stanford.edu.