The Best Diet for the Climate Crisis Takes Red Meat Off the Menu

There's one thing everyone agrees on: Less red meat

Dairy Cows
Oliver Strewe / Getty Images

Agriculture is responsible for 26% of global greenhouse emissions. Much of that comes from raising livestock and the crops the livestock eat, so our diet can make a big difference in emissions. But what is the best diet to fight climate change? Mark Maslin, a professor at University College London, tried to answer this question by comparing climatarian, flexitarian, vegetarian, and vegan diets in an article for The Conversation.

Maslin explained that a "flexitarian" diet is one where three-quarters of meat and dairy is replaced by plant-based food, and then disses the climatarian diet. He wrote:

"Let us start with a new fad: the climatarian diet. One version was created by the not-for-profit organisation Climates Network, which says this diet is healthy, climate friendly and nature friendly. According to the publicity, 'with a simple diet shift, you can save a tonne of CO₂ equivalents per person per year.' Sounds great, but the diet still allows you to eat meat and other high-emission foods such as pork, poultry, fish, dairy products and eggs. So this is just a newer version of the “climate carnivore” diet except followers are encouraged to switch as much red meat (beef, lamb, pork, veal and venison) as possible to other meats and fish."
greenhouse gas emissions by calories

Our World in Data

The website Maslin pointed to is dead at the time of writing, but I would hardly call the climatarian diet a fad. While writing my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I found following a climatarian diet saved a lot more than a metric ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) in a year.

Just cutting out red meat saved that much. I followed the Our World in Data table, eating up from the bottom, modified to take into account location and season, which OWID doesn't think is a big deal but I concluded that it was.

Gigatons of Carbon saved per year if everyone ate this diet
The gigatons of carbon saved per year if everyone ate this diet.

Mark Maslin / The Converstation

Maslin's table shows a climatarian diet being way down near the bottom, slightly better than half as good as a vegetarian diet, which could include lots of cheese, hothouse tomatoes, and California strawberries. I wrote in my book:

"CO2 emissions drop like a stone if you follow a vegan diet. However, a vegetarian diet that includes eggs and dairy has probably three times the footprint and, realistically, is not much better from that point of view than one that includes pork or chicken. Vegan diets are meaningful regarding CO2, but vegetarian ones actually don’t appear to make much difference if you keep away from the ruminants."

Perhaps we are just differing over the name. Maslin concluded: "I suggest being an 'ultra-flexitarian'—a diet of mostly plant-based foods but one that allows meat and dairy products in extreme moderation, but red and processed meat are completely banned." That sounds pretty climatarian to me.

Change of diet works in two ways

Our World in Data

In the end, we are all saying the same thing—the first and biggest thing is to cut out the beef and lamb. It reduces emissions in two ways: directly, through the elimination of the methane burps, and indirectly, as the land used for livestock is allowed to regrow with carbon-sucking vegetation. And the closer we get to vegan, the more carbon emissions are reduced.

Journalist George Monbiot said this too in an important article in The Guardian, calling the land use "agricultural sprawl." He wrote: "People rail against urban sprawl: the profligate use of land for housing and infrastructure. But the world’s urban areas occupy just 1% of the planet’s land surface, in comparison with the 28% used for grazing. Agricultural sprawl inflicts a very high ecological opportunity cost: the missing ecosystems that would otherwise exist."

Monbiot's article is mostly a diatribe against what I have called "happy meat" that is raised and grazed organically. He said it is most certainly not happy and that "our gastroporn aesthetics, embedded in bucolic fantasy, are among the greatest threats to life on Earth."

Maslin also raised the point that I studiously ignored in my book since I was only concerned with carbon emissions: the ethical dimension. He noted, "Every year we slaughter 69 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, 0.65 billion turkeys, 0.57 billion sheep, 0.45 billion goats, and 0.3 billion cattle. That is over nine animals killed for every person on the planet per year—all for nutrition and protein which we know can come from a plant-based diet."

He concluded that the climate-friendly diet—whatever you call it—would "prevent the slaughter of billions of innocent animals." This should not be discounted, nor should we forget the artery-friendly benefits of eating less red meat.

There is no bucolic fantasy, there is no such thing as happy meat, and there are many reasons to eat a whole lot less of it.

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