The “climatarian diet” has been making the news lately for raising awareness about how our diet can affect climate change. It prioritizes foods with lower carbon footprints from their production and transport, such as locally grown produce, over foods with higher carbon footprints, such as red meat. Climate change threatens our wellbeing and health in a number of ways – including harming lung health as a result of contributing to increased levels of air pollution, including ozone and particle pollution. These problems put millions of people at risk for health problems, especially those with lung disease. Our Climate Activist Advisor Lana Weidgenant spoke with us about her passion for promoting a more plant-based diet as one way to address the climate crisis and build a healthier future.

Q: What does food have to do with climate change?

Our food system contributes over 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions1 and current levels of meat and dairy consumption in high-income countries such as the United States are incompatible with remaining within a livable degree of global warming. Even if we were to eliminate the fossil fuel industry, the emissions from our food system alone would keep us in an unsafe position with the climate crisis.

Q: How does the meat industry’s contributions to climate change compare to other industries?

The meat industry is not the most significant contributor to climate change—that spot is taken by the fossil fuel industry. However, understanding the impact of the meat industry on climate change is very important for our climate action because the contribution is significant enough that if we disregard it, we will remain at risk.2

The meat industry holds an interesting position in regard to the climate crisis as one of the largest sources of methane emissions. Because methane has a larger impact than carbon dioxide in the short term, achieving food systems change could buy us more time to work on the carbon dioxide impacts.

Q: What is the role of vegetarianism/veganism in the climate movement?

The movements for vegetarianism and veganism have helped to bring important food systems and meat industry conversation into the climate movement. Many of the climate activists I have met in this movement, particularly from younger generations, personally follow a vegetarian, vegan or plant-forward diet.

Q: Does everyone need to go full vegan/vegetarian to make a difference?

Not at all! I think one of the largest misconceptions that has in the past come from the vegetarian/vegan movement is that you have to be 100% vegetarian, 100% vegan, or not even bother trying—and that couldn’t be less true. What we need is not a handful of vegans but a large-scale movement toward more plant-rich diets. If 50% of the population tries to eat more plant-based and cut down on meat and dairy in the ways they can, that will have a tremendously larger impact than 5% of the population going full vegan.

Q: What would you say to those hoping to eat a more vegetarian diet?

The more you do it, the easier it gets! And a great way to start is by swapping out the meat in your meal with plant-based protein a few times a week. A few examples of these plant-based proteins are chickpeas, beans, lentils, eggplant, cauliflower, tofu, tempeh, seitan, falafel and more. It can also help to start with plant-based meat alternatives similar to the foods you are used to, such as swapping out a red meat burger for a veggie burger in your meal. Try out different options and see what works for you! Once you have tried a few options and feel ready, it can also help to have a goal/challenge such as eating vegetarian for a month or plant-based for breakfast and lunch and then anything you want for dinner—something that will ensure you give the plant-rich lifestyle a fair try!

Q: What do you say to the rumors that Biden wanted to take away burgers?

The rumors that Biden is taking away anyone’s burgers is completely untrue. However, in response, we shouldn't take the easy route of responding, just saying it is ridiculous. Meat consumption in the United States is an issue for climate change and for health, and we need to start talking about that.

Sources:

  1. (2021, March 9). Food systems account for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. United Nations. https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/03/1086822 
  2. (2020, November 20). Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/370/6517/705

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