Where’s the Plant-Based Beef?

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Scholar argues for promotion of environmentally conscious plant-based diets through regulation.

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Eating less meat may not only be good for your health; it may also be good for the planet’s health.

In a recent paper, Lingxi Chenyang of the University of Michigan and Yale Law School, has proposed creating food regulations to combat climate change. Her suggestions emphasize promoting a plant-based diet to reduce meat consumption. Adopting such a diet is “one of the highest-impact individual lifestyle changes for climate [change] mitigation” that a person can make, says Chenyang.

Meat production contributes to climate change in several ways. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Many of these emissions come not from the animals themselves, but from the resources it takes to feed them. Cultivation, fertilization, and transportation of feed crops, for instance, are all major contributors of greenhouse gases.

Chenyang also observes that more than half of all farmland in Western nations is used to grow food for livestock, and that food producers continue to convert forests into farmland. Forest loss is a particular problem, since living trees absorb carbon dioxide—a common greenhouse gas. When forests are converted into farmland, though, the trees release the stored carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

The beef industry is a particular target for reducing emissions. Chenyang identifies cows as the most wasteful form of livestock, as they require large quantities of food and land for a small return in beef.

Eating fish as an alternative to meat also presents problems. Many wild fish stocks are overfished to the point of depletion. Fish farming, although more energy efficient than livestock farming, can still pose environmental threats.

Chenyang instead focuses on the most energy-efficient form of protein currently available: protein from plants. Plant-based “meat” offers similar levels of nutrition and consumes fewer resources than livestock. Chenyang estimates that plant-based meats have carbon footprints “150 times smaller than the most carbon-intensive beef.”

The most important action that regulators can take, according to Chenyang, is to increase transparency and make information about food widely available. Although courts have declared some state laws that hinder undercover investigations of food production facilities unconstitutional, other states still retain these so-called agriculture gag laws. Repealing these laws, Chenyang says, would be a “costless” way to increase information about the meat production process.

Chenyang also suggests reforming the federal commodity checkoff program, which gives trade associations tax revenue from certain foods for promotional purposes. The program currently allocates far more funding to meat products than to fruits and vegetables. Chenyang recommends a more balanced allocation of funding, as well as incentives for trade associations to implement climate-sustainable practices.

The federal government could also use the National Organic Program to promote sustainable foods. Organic foods are increasingly popular, but according to Chenyang the current federal program does not set out adequate requirements for ensuring that foods are grown in a sustainable fashion. Instead, organic standards focus on prohibiting genetically engineered and synthetic products. Although the current organic standards have led to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, Chenyang states that they still “fall short.”

Chenyang proposes adding sustainability standards to the organics program and banning certain unsustainable practices. For example, she recommends creating rules mandating that meat producers recycle manure, a practice which improves the ability of soil to absorb carbon.

In addition, Chenyang recognizes the importance of making plant-based meals more available and acceptable to consumers.

Currently, school lunch programs reflect the national trend of over-emphasis on meat, Chenyang states. Younger children may not be as aware of nutritional value, or may feel peer pressure to eat what their peers eat. By increasing the plant-based lunches available to students, the government can make more sustainable food options acceptable to younger generations.

Chenyang argues that the environmental benefits from plant-based school lunch programs will only increase over the years, as more and more children are exposed to sustainable foods and create healthier habits.

But getting Americans to eat less meat may not be so straightforward. Foods such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and barbequed meats are indelible parts of American culture. Chenyang expects difficulties in bringing about a cultural shift away from these items.

But Chenyang notes that similar changes in attitude have occurred before. She draws parallels with the anti-tobacco movement of the last 50 years.

One of the key elements of the anti-tobacco movement was its reliance on transparency. Students today learn about the harms of smoking and secondhand smoke in school, and many public spaces such as restaurants and parks have banned smoking. Chenyang urges much the same kind of public education over the environmental dangers of meats.

Chenyang worries that the harms caused by a meat-based diet will not trigger “a similarly intense or quick public response.” Even so, she notes that consumers are sensitive to new findings and food laws. For example, concerns about fat and cholesterol in the 1980s led to a decrease in consumption of products like whole milk and beef.

A concerted push for plant-based foods from consumers would, she concludes, help ensure healthier people and a healthier planet.