07/30/2019 05:45 EDT | Updated 07/31/2019 13:38 EDT

Is The Movement To Eat Less Meat Actually Making A Difference?

Americans are eating less meat and more plant-based foods these days. Here's how it's affecting the environment.

Would it surprise you to learn that 95% of the people who bought a plant-based burger this past year were meat eaters?

The National Restaurant Association’s 2019 What’s Hot report shows that a lot of omnivores are choosing alternative proteins they believe are better for their health and the Earth. And groundbreaking, celebrity-endorsed non-beef burgers, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, are satisfying people’s protein cravings while driving a national meat-free trend. 

“Most surveys definitely show that anywhere between 30 and 50% [of people] are interested in cutting down on meat,” Becky Ramsing of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future told HuffPost. The institution’s current research is focused on “getting our brains around” why a growing number of people are reducing their meat consumption without becoming vegetarian or vegan. 

Drew Angerer via Getty Images
Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown speaks before ringing the opening bell at Nasdaq on May 2. The company was valued at about $1.5 billion when it went public and skyrocketed to $3.77 billion a day later.

To be sure, the public messaging to eat less meat is inescapable. Health reports continue to linkred meat and processed meat to chronic diseases. Animal welfare groups campaign for shoppers to buy humane animal products and choose plant-based substitutes instead of factory-farmed meats. 

And then there’s climate change. World Resources Institute and other environmental groups have sounded a call to action to cut our impact on the environment in half by eating less meat and dairy.

Although Americans still eat four times as much meat as the rest of the world, the demand for plant-based foods soared 20% last year, compared with 8% in 2017. 

It’s clear that the American diet is shifting. But are there any signs that it’s making a difference?

What Experts Say

Brian Kateman is the founder of the Reducetarian Movement, built on the core belief that cutting back is more effective than cutting out meat completely. He says that even a 10% reduction in meat consumption can have significant effects on personal health, the lives of 70 billion farm animals and global warming. 

If the average American cut just a quarter pound of beef a week from their diet, about one hamburger, it would be the equivalent of taking 10 million cars off the road for a year.Sujatha Bergen, Natural Resources Defense Council health campaigns director

As the author of “The Reducetarian Solution” (and editor of “The Reducetarian Cookbook”), Kateman’s goal is to unify everyone who is purposefully reducing the amount of animal products they consume. “I think we are finally starting to see a trend of folks recognizing that meat consumption isn’t an all-or-nothing premise and that vegan food isn’t just for vegans,” Kateman told HuffPost. 

The popular concept of Meatless Mondays is also based on the idea that simple steps lead to sweeping change. The campaign promotes “one day a week, cut out meat” to help people gradually shift away from meat-heavy diets. With an appealing message and endorsements by the Humane Society of the United States, Friends of the Earth and many others, schools, hospitals and corporate cafeterias nationwide now embrace Meatless Mondays. 

As the campaign’s technical adviser, the Center for a Livable Future calculated that if everyone who knows about Meatless Mondays — 32% of Americans surveyed — followed it faithfully for 52 weeks, it would be the equivalent of taking 1.6 million cars off the road for a year. 

There is more evidence that people can fight climate change with their forks. A Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report called “Less Beef, Less Carbon” found that by reducing beef consumption by 19% from 2005 to 2014, Americans dramatically reduced carbon emissions equivalent to 39 million fewer cars.

To put it in more personal terms, Sujatha Bergen, the NRDC’s health campaigns director, told HuffPost, “If the average American cut just a quarter pound of beef a week from their diet, about one hamburger, it would be the equivalent of taking 10 million cars off the road for a year.”

Food’s Carbon Footprint

Beef isn’t the only food that produces emissions that contribute to global warming. As Bergen explained, all food involves energy, fossil fuels and fertilizer. But cows, along with sheep (but few people eat lamb), are ruminants with a digestive system that generates methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Their waste produces another, nitrous oxide. 

Robert Nickelsberg via Getty Images
By reducing beef consumption by 19% from 2005 to 2014, Americans reduced carbon emissions equivalent to 39 million fewer cars.

“If you compare beef to lentils, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the emissions associated with growing a plant, like lentils or other produce, are significantly lower,” Bergen said. 

Along with beef, the NRDC report investigated the major food groups with the greatest effect on the environment. Chicken, for example, is more popular now, increasing from 22 pounds a year per person in 1970 to 51.5 pounds in 2016, according to statistics from the Department of Agriculture. 

And while chicken may be better for the climate because poultry doesn’t produce methane, it causes other problems, like pollution and dead zones in waterways caused by manure and fertilizer runoff. “Climate change is not the only thing we want to avoid,” she said. “The most environmentally friendly choice is to eat plants.” 

Another shift during this period is that people also ate more yogurt, cheese and butter — all foods with significant environmental costs, according to the NRDC report. And, although people did eat less beef, America is still the fourth-largest red meat consumer in the world, averaging more than 50 pounds per person per year. 

Green Meats

Health experts, animal welfare groups and environmentalists agree that it’s time to get serious about eating fewer animal products overall. Investors, food entrepreneurs and the media are all paying attention, which is good news for Kateman. In September, the Reducetarian Summit will gather hundreds of tech executives, philanthropists, nutritionists and academics to strategize ways for everyone to consume fewer animal products — eaters of every label united in the goal to end factory farming.

Compared to the number of vegans and vegetarians today, there are more than five times as many former vegans and vegetarians.

The most sweeping changes are happening in food services, where demand for plant-based options is changing the menus in millions of cafeterias run by mega-operators including Compass, Sodexo and Aramark. Recently, the NRDC, along with 70 other organizations, sent a letter to Aramark’s CEO asking the board to commit the company to a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions within the next two years.

Healthful, climate-friendly food service is also a goal for Friends of the Earth, built on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines to change school lunches. In California, an initiative to incentivize K-12 programs to serve plant-based meals is gaining traction. “For too long, our tax dollars have subsidized unhealthy, highly processed factory-farmed meat in school lunch,” said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director for food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth. “This new plant-based school food program would help California to measurably reduce its carbon footprint while serving kids healthier food.”

Michael Thomas via Getty Images
Select Burger Kings around the U.S. are now selling the Impossible Whopper, made with a plant-based patty.

Because plant-based options are more widely available, more appealing and better tasting, they’re also more socially acceptable. But, although Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are getting a lot of buzz at backyard barbecues, for most people, meat remains at the center of the plate.

“One of the caveats is that people are more interested in more plants but are not quite making that transition yet,” Ramsing noted on the uptick in chicken and dairy consumption since 2015. “Even people who said they were limiting meat, who said they were flexitarians, were eating more animal proteins.” 

The 2019 Food and Health Survey found that people want to make environmentally sustainable food choices. But they say it’s confusing to know what to buy. When it comes to reducing meat, most people are driven by health concerns and cost over animal welfare and environmental issues.

Still, there are strong signals that change is happening. Ramsing points to John Hopkins’ own study showing that two-thirds of Americans, especially millennials, had reduced their consumption of one type of meat over the past three years. And even more people aspire to change their diets.

It’s true that the vegan and vegetarian diet brings the benefits of more vegetables, whole grains and legumes with the lightest global footprint. But the fact is most people are either unable or unwilling to maintain strict no-meat diets. Compared with the number of vegans and vegetarians today, there are more than five times as many former vegans and vegetarians.

Smaller dietary changes are much more appealing and effective than eliminating meat. “You don’t have to become a full-fledged vegan,” Bergen said. “The more you shift the better. Food is a very powerful way for people to take action.”

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