Few things worry the SciMoms more than climate change and its impact on future generations. We have written numerous articles on the environmental impact of our food choices, including posts on meat consumption, reducing food waste, meat alternatives, and dairy substitutes. Every time we share these articles, ranchers and agricultural advocates tell us just how wrong we are, even though we are sharing science and evidence-based recommendations.
Several, but not all, of the SciMoms are vegetarian or vegan. Out of all of us, it’s my family who undoubtedly consumes the most beef. So I’d like to take a moment to address the criticisms of our posts covering meat and climate change from the perspective of a beef-lover who has reduced her beef intake.
I also want to preface this by saying that assessing trade-offs and one’s own environmental impact is not easy. There are so many caveats and scenarios that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
Meat and climate — the evidence for eating less meat
Now, if you disagree that human activity impacts our climate, then I request that you stop reading now. This article is not for you and will not change your mind. This article is for those who accept the scientific consensus on climate change but have questions about the climate impact of meat consumption and want to learn more.
The issue of meat and climate change is increasingly polarizing in the US. The debate looms large in culture wars. Eating meat has come to represent everything from being a true American and supporting US farmers to what it means to be a “real man.” Many view the push to decrease meat consumption as government overreach. The topic was even prominent on the 2020 campaign trail. And just like any other polarizing topic, there is a lot of misinformation about meat and climate circulating online, particularly around meat substitutes.
The evidence on meat’s impact on climate change can be briefly summarized as follows: meat alternatives and dairy substitutes are nutritious alternatives with lower carbon footprints. While there are many caveats and nuances outlined in our previous linked posts, that sentence summarizes the growing scientific consensus. Yet we continue to get pushback from farmers and agriculture advocates.
Here, I address the arguments we most often hear against reducing meat consumption. Some of these arguments are factual statements, but they do not represent the entire story and miss a whole lot of nuance.
Eating less meat is an important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions
Many commenters object to promoting eating less meat because “meat only accounts for a small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions.” They argue that we should work on addressing energy and oil before we worry about cows.
However, this assumes that we can’t do both and that reducing even this small fraction is not important. It also ignores that the situation is dire and we need immediate action on many fronts.
I think of greenhouse gas emissions as a tub filling with water from various sources, and we don’t want the tub to overflow. In the beginning, a thimbleful of water could be ignored while focusing on minimizing the buckets that are quickly filling the tub. But we didn’t do much about the small or the large sources of water for a very long time. Now we have to worry about the thimbles as well as the buckets that are both dumping water into the bathtub.
Individual actions like eating less meat can have an important impact
A common objection is that “talking about individual dietary choices puts the responsibility on the consumer rather than politicians, systems, and industries to address climate change.”
This assumes that we cannot and should not do both. Individual action can have an impact, particularly when manufacturers note the growing demand for energy-friendly products, as seen in the auto industry. Moreover, dietary change, including reducing food waste and shifting to a plant-rich diet, are two of the most effective choices for climate action that individuals can take, according to Project Drawdown.
Also, most of us who care about climate change are getting tired of waiting for politicians to have the moral strength to make the difficult choices for our planet and for future generations. Individuals acting together can have a large collective impact.
Changing diets on a large scale will lead to shifts in the job market
There is a real concern among those whose livelihoods depend on producing meat about income and job loss. Any economic shift comes with the potential to change the employment landscape. As SciMom Jenny Splitter wrote for Vox, even though the nature of the jobs that will be gained and lost is not very clear cut, there will undoubtedly be shifts in the job market.
There will also be opportunities for new jobs. A plant-rich food economy will also require workers and opportunities for a just transition. It should come as no surprise that meat lobbies have opposed and fought against meat alternatives.
Eating less meat and proteins with a lower environmental impact can help with climate change
A lot of people respond: “I don’t want to become vegan, and I don’t want anyone telling me what to eat.” SciMoms as a group does not advocate for the elimination of beef or steaks, or barbeques. What we are advocating for is decreased consumption of proteins with the highest environmental impact (beef, lamb, and goat) and a shift to proteins with lower environmental impact and more plant-based foods. The World Resources Institute provides a “protein scorecard” to help you make these decisions.
Some of us do have value-based and other reasons to avoid beef and meat altogether, but we are not insisting that all of our readers give it up.
We cannot all do all possible things to reduce our environmental impact
Commenters often dismiss our posts because we aren’t also advocating for all other changes in that post. These include comments like: “Unless you’ve stopped flying or driving, you have no right to tell me to stop eating beef. Look at Leonardo DiCaprio: he’s such a hypocrite telling us what to do while he owns his fancy yachts that use so much energy. You’re no different.”
These types of comments ignore the fact that we can all do some part to address the climate emergency. Being climate conscious does not mean all-or-none. There are many things that many of us can do to reduce our environmental impact, but there are very few of us who can realistically eliminate our entire environmental impact.
This means consuming “less” with all the complexities and relativity that go into that term. This means taking action when and where you’re able to and recognizing not all of us can take equal action in the same areas. For my family, it has meant fewer things, less waste, less traditional energy consumption, and, yes: less beef.
Rethinking how we use land for climate action
Many commenters defend beef by saying ranchers raise cattle on land that can’t be used for growing other crops. That is true for some ranchers, at least in the US, but there’s more to the story.
To start with, many (though not all) ranchers in the US do raise cattle on good pasture land but keep in mind that the climate action recommendation to eat just a little less beef does not threaten the future of these ranches at all.
Thanks to rising global population rates — according to the United Nations, we’re supposed to hit almost 10 billion people by 2050 — beef demand is going to skyrocket if we all keep eating meat at the same high rate. It’s just math — more beef eaters on the planet mean more demand for beef. And if demand for beef keeps going up, ranchers all over the world — not just the ones raising cows on good pasture — will expand their farmland to keep up. We know that’s true because that’s what’s already happening. Globally, beef demand is rising, and ranchers in places like Brazil are clearing the Amazon rainforest — destroying wild land that is crucial for storing carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere. Mow those forests down, and you release the carbon, but you also lose those forests as carbon reserves into the future, which means your emissions will keep going in the wrong direction — upwards.
How I’m eating less meat
Among SciMoms, our concerns around climate change have guided many of our decisions ranging from housing to food to the sizes of our families. But life is also about joy, family, friends, and our passions. And perhaps this is where this discussion becomes difficult: we’re being asked to give up things that give us joy, whether it’s a flight to Italy for a vacation or a sizzling steak on a hot July day, for something that is intangible and potentially has no immediate impact.
So what does “decreased beef consumption” look like for someone who loves beef yet understands the climate impact of meat? It has meant more poultry, buying Impossible beef patties, more pork kebabs, and a lot more fish. All of these protein options have a lower environmental impact than beef.
I also try to purchase meat directly from ranchers who farm sustainably, but that doesn’t give me a free ticket to eat as much meat as I want. These direct purchases from sustainable farms still have a large environmental impact and could even mean needing to eat less! Purchasing directly from ranchers is also not an option for most people for many reasons, even starting with direct access to ranchers that farm sustainably. It also requires having a deep freezer, which is not the norm in urban California. For us, the energy trade-off of maintaining this freezer works because we have solar panels and batteries to store our power.
We still eat burgers at a barbecue, still eat steaks on special occasions, and still make prime rib on Mother’s Day. But we can easily go a week or two without eating beef, and that wasn’t always the case.
None of this is to say that this shift is easy or attainable for everyone, nor even that everyone who cares about climate change needs to reduce their beef consumption. All families have different means and cultural needs. Yet, simply put, the facts are clear — industries and governments need to act with urgency, and individual households that reduce consumption of beef and other meat with high greenhouse gas emissions can help to reduce our overall impact.