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How cities are cutting meat consumption to help meet climate goals

Meat and dairy products account for nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and Americans eat more meat per capita than any other country.

The United States must reduce its meat consumption to meet its climate goals. Meat and dairy products represent nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and Americans eat more meat per capita Than any other country.

Although it has long been understood that reduce meat consumption is one of the most significant ways people can fight climate change, experts now say dietary changes at the community, city and state level are needed to have a meaningful impact. “It has to be a collective effort, ideally with government support,” said Jessica Zionts, food researcher at the World Resources Institute. Researchers believe that if the Americans exchange half of their meat and dairy consumption for plant-based alternatives, the associated emission reductions would be equivalent to taking almost 50 million cars off road every year.

The Biden administration, despite its promises to reduce emissions, including methanestayed rather quiet on the role of agriculture in achieving this. In May, representatives of the American cattle industry said they had escaped “relatively unscathed” Biden’s climate policies. That of the administration 2021 plan to combat methane emissions did not include any changes to cattle feedlots or cattle raising, although red meat is one of the largest sources of emissions per calorie.

Chloe Waterman, senior program manager for environmental group Friends of the Earth, said there was little political appetite at the federal level to tackle food-related emissions. “We need [to focus on] places that are not as influenced by the industrial agribusiness lobby,” she said.

Several cities have stepped in to fill this gap.

almost start two decades agocity ​​legislators Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland adopted “Meatless Monday” resolutions. Minneapolis even launched a Meatless Monday Supper Club. But these initiatives were mostly symbolic — largely intended to encourage plant-based eating habits more than anything else, Waterman said.

More recently, however, several cities have begun experimenting with a new approach that proponents say can reduce emissions: reducing the amount of meat city agencies buy and serve at public events.

In 2013, Oakland Unified School District began to reduce its purchases of meat and dairy products by 30%. A suite study found that by doing so, the district reduced its food-related emissions by 14%.

Five years later, the city of Berkeley passes a municipal decree demanding that meals served at all facilities and events in the city on Mondays be entirely vegan. And in 2019, New York City pledged to reduce beef purchases by 50% by 2040. (The city also Meatless Mondays to its 1.1 million public school students).

“To achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement, we must stop Deforestationsaid Zionts, adding that beef production is responsible for more than 40 percent of deforestation. “We need to feed 10 billion people by 2050, but we have other ways of meeting protein needs that are more efficient,” Zionts said, pointing to alternatives that take less land and produce less energy. emissions than livestock.

“Our to research shows that we cannot achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement if we do not reduce the amount of meat and dairy products we produce and consume,” says Waterman.

Despite this, plant-based diets can be a tough sell, even in ostensibly progressive cities.

Claudia Lifton, an adviser to the Denver mayor’s office and an advocate for reducing meat consumption, said she needed to act strategically in Colorado, where livestock are the main agricultural export. She has spent years building relationships with different stakeholders.

“[A colleague] was really passionate about the climate. So with them, I talked about the carbon footprint of animal products and the loss of biodiversity. If someone is truly passionate about social justice, [bringing] environmental racism and worker rights violations in slaughterhouses [helps move the conversation forward],” she says. “Tapping into people’s passions drives them to action.

In 2021, she successfully lobbied the city’s sustainability agency to only serve plant-based meals at public events. “Having forward-thinking language about plants in a policy in Denver, which is in a state so heavily influenced by ranchers, is really symbolically powerful,” she said.

Position these proposals as a turn towards eating more vegetables and legumes tends to get less pushback than a policy that restricts meat, said Jennifer Channin, executive director of the Better Food Foundation, especially if the plant-based foods in question are delicious.

Channin and his organization advise local governments and institutional restaurant systems in their transition to plant-based diets. “Sometimes it’s [as simple as] movement of ingredients. For example, most diners will never tell the difference between plant-based mayo and egg-based mayo,” she said.

When the schools of San Luis Obispoa coastal town 200 miles north of Los Angeles, has reduced its meat purchases, they have invested in training their staff to be able to prepare appealing vegetarian options, such as Thai-influenced red lentil burgers.

“We need to stop thinking about how to get the cheapest prices on packaged pizzas and processed snacks and start thinking about what we need to do to afford better ingredients. When we serve better food, more kids participate and more money goes back into the system,” said Erin Primer, District Food Services Manager. Edible in 2018.

Channin said municipalities need to make the meat transition as pleasant as possible. “It’s going to be an obstacle if [city purchasers] are forced to choose the cheapest rather than the best [meat alternatives]“, because the cheapest option is not necessarily healthy or attractive, she said.

Menu descriptions can also make a huge difference in winning public opinion, Channin said. To research showed that describing the taste of a plant-based dish makes it more appealing to diners than highlighting its health benefits.

In the coming months, advocates like Waterman and Channin will see the policies they advocated enacted in the nation’s capital. Last year, Washington, D.C. passed legislation measure and reduce by a quarter the GHG emissions associated with the city’s food purchases by 2030.

The measure will make the district the first jurisdiction in the nation to set a citywide food-related emissions reduction goal, including schools, public health facilities and correctional facilities.

“At the time of its adoption, no other local policy required city or county operations to actually measure their emissions and work toward a goal,” Waterman said. The bill also provides for the hiring of two full-time employees to ensure that the commitment really holds.

One tool that Zionts says will help keep the city on track is a emissions calculator developed by WRI. “They submit their supply data — the quantity of everything they bought — and then we analyze it in the calculator,” Zionts said. His team will then provide feedback to inform purchasing decisions that reduce emissions.

Ultimately, Waterman wants to draw attention to the untapped power of cities and schools to reduce food-related emissions. “Schools serve seven billion meals each year – more than Starbucks, Subway and McDonald’s combined.

Cities and schools can and should lead the country away from meat-related emissions, she said. “They have to, because we don’t see that kind of bold leadership from the federal government.”


This article is as part of Covering Climate Now’s “Food and Water” week of joint coverage. Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, non-profit news service covering climate change. Follow them on @NexusMediaNews.

Jenny Splitter is Sentient Media’s Managing Editor.