More than nine in ten Americans “are willing” to eat more fruits and vegetables, and more than half are open to giving up some red meat and chowing down on more plant-based meat alternatives, according to a new survey of more than a thousand adults in the US by Yale and the nonprofit Earth Day Network.
Why aren’t there more greens on Americans’ plates? Sixty-four percent of survey participants said it was as simple as nobody ever asking them to eat more plant-based foods. Another 58 percent said that a greener diet just costs too much, and another roughly 50 percent are either unsure what plant-based foods to buy or don’t know how to cook them.
Whatever the barrier, experts say that it’s an environmental imperative for people to eat more plants. “If we do not make the connection between food that we’re eating and climate change, we’re doing ourselves a disservice,” says Jillian Semaan, food and environment director at the Earth Day Network. “The most immediate action anyone can take [on climate change] today is to look at what they’re putting on their plate and what they’re putting in their body,” she tells The Verge.
A bite of meat typically comes with a bigger carbon footprint than a bite of fruits, vegetables, or grains. That’s because it generally takes more energy and resources to raise livestock. Think about it this way: instead of raising crops to feed people, there’s an extra step of raising crops to raise animals to feed people. Livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions humans pump into the atmosphere, and a majority of that comes from cows. Cattle farming in Brazil is also a culprit behind deforestation and, consequently, fires in the Amazon rainforest.
For someone who wants to minimize their own contributions to the climate crisis, there’s evidence that the single best thing an individual can do is to eat less meat and dairy — at least for those who live in more affluent countries where people tend to eat more meat. There are variations within countries. In the United States, the diets of white Americans disproportionately contribute to climate change compared to the typical diets of black and Latinx communities.
Food trends could help more Americans put down their meat patties and pick up a veggie one instead. The Impossible Burger, which tries so hard to be meat that it fakes the bloody center of a medium-rare patty, moved from restaurant menus to grocery stores and fast food chains. Impossible Pork could be coming to a plate near you soon, too.
Another meat alternative, the Beyond Burger, generates 90 percent less planet-heating greenhouse gases and has a 99 percent smaller impact on water scarcity compared to a quarter pound of US beef, according to a study by the University of Michigan that was commissioned by Beyond Meat.
The cost of those meat alternatives can still leave some people out, Semaan says, but the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger are helping to overcome another challenge: the “taste barrier.” In fact, the meat industry is so worried about the popularity of these new foods that it’s pushing to limit what gets to be labeled a “burger” and “meat.”
American meat consumption hit an all-time high in 2018, with each consumer eating an average of 222 pounds of meat. Despite the prevalence of meat in US culture, 70 percent of Americans rarely or never discuss the effects their food has on the environment, Semaan’s report found. She is hopeful that getting information out about the environmental costs of red meat will change people’s minds and lower meat consumption. “If they know more about the impact of their food choices, then they would make better decisions,” she says.