The simplest ways Americans can dramatically reduce their carbon footprint

This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American If Americans made changes to their diets and stopped wasting food, they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help conserve global natural resources, experts say.

Cutting down on milk and meat protein are top ways to lower an individual’s carbon footprint, said Janet Ranganathan, vice president of science and research at the World Resources Institute.

She is the lead author of a report published today that explores how dietary changes in the world’s wealthiest nations can affect the environment. The report’s release coincides with a separate national public service campaign launched by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Ad Council to educate consumers about ways to reduce household food waste.

“Other than for a small segment of population, a vegan or vegetarian diet is not going to work and is not necessary,” said Ranganathan. “We wanted to look at things that were more plausible and consistent with what people are likely to do.”

The average American consumer is eating 83 grams of animal-based protein a day, well above the daily recommended amount of 51 grams. The research calls for bringing that overconsumption back in line with global average levels, according to Ranganathan.

“What we’ve shown [is] they can cut their environmental impacts nearly in half by eating less meat and dairy,” she said.

To help consumers figure out how much specific foods contribute to emissions, WRI is publishing a “protein scorecard” that breaks down the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released per gram of protein from different food sources.

AVOIDING THE ‘DON’T EAT MEAT’ MESSAGE

Changing diets and cutting food waste in the world’s wealthiest countries will be increasingly necessary as climate change affects food production worldwide, experts argue. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the gap between the amount of food farmers around the world can produce and the demand for calories will reach around 70 percent by 2050. Meanwhile, the ability of the planet to produce enough food will be pushed to its limits by a growing global middle class and population expected to near 10 billion by the middle of the century.

Using computer modeling, the report’s authors calculated that if 2 billion consumers who eat over the recommended amount of meat cut their animal-based protein consumption in half, it would help to reduce the global “food gap” by 30 percent.

Even changing what kinds of meat people eat can make a dent in their carbon footprint. For instance, trading a third of beef consumption for pork or poultry can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent, Ranganathan said.

Switching to white meat makes a difference because ruminant livestock like cattle, sheep and goats are responsible for close to half of the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Of the three animals, cattle are by far the least efficient at converting their feed into meat or milk for human consumption.

Beef production uses about a third of the water used in all farm animal production worldwide. Reducing beef consumption alone could be an important part of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But Daniel Vennard, a senior fellow at WRI, said the way to change consumer behavior is to focus on quality, price and flavor — not on how choosing vegetables over meat will lead to greater emissions savings.

“That’s not how shopping works,” he said. “Most people put what they do in their baskets based on habits on what they do or what they know how to cook,” he said.

One example: Selling soy milk in the dairy aisle, even though it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, to get people to substitute it for milk.

Eventually, activists said they hope to change social norms around behavior so that people will consistently pick vegetable-based proteins over animal-based ones.

“I think for us, the key thing is not telling people to stop eating meat,” said Vennard.

ATTACKING THE ‘CULTURE OF ABUNDANCE’

The North American Meat Institute disputed the assertion that Americans are consuming too much meat and that livestock production is harming the environment.

“I’m baffled by the report’s claims of overconsumption of protein. U.S. dietary guidelines analyses have shown that, by and large, we are hitting the recommended levels in the U.S.,” said Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs.

In its “Media MythCrusher” press release, the industry group argues that global estimates of agricultural emissions will frequently include overestimates in developed countries like the United States, where 4.2 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock and 2.2 percent of emissions come from beef.

The beef industry has previously attacked suggestions by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee that the American public should cut down on meat.

“Despite being charged with examining new evidence, the Committee based its conclusions on outdated, weak evidence from stereotypical dietary patterns,” said Shalene McNeill, a nutrition scientist and dietitian with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in a statement following the committee’s recommendations last year (ClimateWire, March 25, 2015).

“Advising people to cut back on their red meat intake has had harmful consequences. As red meat intake has declined, we are consuming more empty calories and obesity rates have steadily increased,” she said.

Later this year, WRI will begin a new program that will focus on cutting meat use within the food service agency to target the 50 percent of consumption that happens away from home. The organization will also work with other businesses and manufacturers to encourage them to test new ways to change consumer purchasing.

NRDC along with the Ad Council also will be putting the persuasiveness of sustainability marketing to the test. But instead of trying to persuade people to eat less meat, their goal is to cut down on how much food consumers waste overall in their homes.

For at least the next two years, the “Save the Food” national public service campaign will run ads on TV and billboards, as well as print and social media, that will highlight what activists describe as small, simple ways consumers can make changes to their food purchasing and storage habits.

“The bottom line is that growing food takes a lot of resources and it does have a huge amount of impact on water use and land use, and so when we are not using that food, it is a terrible use of those resources,” said Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at NRDC who helped to develop the Save the Food campaign.

That waste of natural resources will only become more of a problem as the global population grows, she added.

“Either we can convert new land, or we can grow more on the same land, but we can lighten the demand pressure if we make better use of the food we have rather than throwing it away,” she said.

Gunders suggested that many consumers already know that wasting food is bad for the environment. NRDC’s goal through the ad campaign is to show people easy ways to use food more effectively through tips like writing and sticking to shopping lists, to instructions on how to store and freeze fresh foods.

This will be the first campaign in the United States to target food waste since the first and second World Wars. Now the focus is not on wartime conservation but trying to change what Gunders described as a “culture of abundance.”