Who's Getting the Word Out About the Link Between Meat Consumption and Climate Change?

Mar 23, 2015

There are a lot of factors, scientists say, that feed into climate change. Carbon emissions are high on the list, of course. But another culprit is increasingly sharing the blame. 

Even if you drive an electric car, even if you have solar panels on your house, even if you compost, recycle and reuse, your food consumption habits play into the climate change dynamic.

Credit Linnea Laestadius

UW-Milwaukee's Linnea Laestadius is one public health researcher looking at the link between meat consumption, climate change and the messaging behind it.

"Livestock create a large amount of methane," Laestadius says. "...The most recent numbers from the United Nations' FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) state that 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock."

She says that more we reduce the amount of meat we eat, the bigger the impact. "Where we are right now, it is clear that any reduction would have a benefit."

"The literature is clear that the people who don't eat any meat have the lowest emissions, but I don't think we are aiming for all or nothing," Linnea Laestadius says. "I think that reducing [meat consumption] would be a significant benefit."

Laestadius' work focuses on the messaging itself, and what non-profits have done to get people to change their diets, in light of the science.

She has found that animal protection groups have been pretty active when it comes to getting the word out about meat consumption and climate change. Environmental groups have been slower on the uptake.

"There's something about food that is so much more intimate, so there was this sense that this wasn't really [environmental groups'] wheelhouse," Laestadius says. 

It's one thing to tell people what to drive, to turn off the lights in your house, but its another thing to tell people to eat differently. "If you speak to someone about their diet, they can get very defensive - very quickly. And, that's because it's so tied up in cultural values, of gender, in class and health," she says. 

When environmental groups did talk about meat consumption, it was primarily in terms of eating better meat, rather than reducing meat consumption, Laestadius says. However, that leads to the question of what is better meat.

"If you look at what industry is putting out, there are a lot of efficiencies that can be made in industrial livestock production. So per unit of meat, something that you would get from a large-scale production facility would be more efficient in terms of emissions than your grass-fed beef," she says. "The problem is that your grass-fed beef is much better for public health on almost every other metric. So [environmental groups] get into this bind of what is better meat."

Laestadius says that we are seeing some movement on this topic. Researchers are setting the agenda for the 2015 dietary guidelines, and environmental groups may fall in line if the messaging over meat consumption is spread by both the government and animal rights groups.