It was an honor to join the first ever Reducetarian Summit, which took place in New York City this past weekend. Over 500 people spent two incredible days exploring how to create a more equitable, compassionate and responsible food system. I gave a presentation highlighting some of the worst environmental impacts of conventional animal farming, and my co-panelists covered the many other ills of factory farming.
The central question of the 2017 Reducetarian Summit: How do we as individuals, organizations, communities, and societies work to systematically decrease meat consumption and mitigate the impacts of factory farms on human and planetary health? The core focus on solutions meant that we ventured beyond the problems with our broken food system and instead explored strategies to create major shifts in institutions, governments and individuals.
Why do we need to eat less meat?
As a mother of two young boys, I am increasingly concerned about the future. It seems like every day the science on climate change is more grave, and action more urgent. The threat that climate change poses to all life on earth is so serious, in fact, that global leaders have agreed we must take swift action to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and prevent the planet from warming 2 degrees Celsius to avoid the most catastrophic impacts. Studies show this is not possible unless we address the current meat production model and drastically cut consumption.
Average meat consumption in America is over 322 grams (.71 lbs) per person per day, compared to the global average of 115 grams (.25 lbs) per capita a day. Yep, that’s right – Americans eat 3 times more meat per capita than any other country in the world. Given our current per capita consumption patterns, Americans are presented with a historic opportunity to shift the scale of climate change. Raising animals for food is responsible for about 14.5 percent of global GHG emissions (more than the emissions from the entire transportation sector, including all the cars, trucks, trains, boats and airplanes around the world). If we can simply eat more plants, we can dramatically decrease our food system related food emissions (the livestock sector is responsible for half of all food sector emissions).
Moving beyond meat consumption: why we must transform meat production
Because of the stranglehold that corporations and agriculture policies have on the food system, influencing market demand is an essential part of the strategy to shift the sector. Market forces really matter, which means that simple shifts in consumption patterns can make a difference. However, even if meat consumption in the U.S. continues to level out, meat exports from the U.S. have soared since 1990, and the percentage of U.S. meat production for export is rapidly rising.
We can’t solely push for decreased meat consumption given the “leaky system effect” where US consumption lowers but meat exports increase. US meat consumption campaigns, therefore, are not enough to tackle the scale of this global problem––we must also tackle the system of production and look at the entire supply chain, especially in countries like Brazil, China, EU and India which drive the global meat trade with their emerging markets and rapidly growing trends in meat consumption.
Efforts to reduce meat consumption are only part of the solution. We must also move swiftly to transform the destructive practices of the biggest corporations and governments around the world, which drive rights abuses and climate change through the industrial production of animal products.
How to Ensure the Food Movement is Inclusive: Shut down factory farms and get healthy plant-based alternatives out front, accessible and affordable to all
One of my favorite speakers at the Reducetarian Summit was Karen Washington, co-owner and farmer at Rise & Root Farm in the Bronx, New York. Her voice is one of the most important and yet least represented in the food movement. She works to get junk food, processed food and fast food out of our food system, starting in some of the poorest communities (in this case, the Bronx), to ensure that our food movement is inclusive.
Karen asks, “How can we expect low-income communities to join the movement to eat plant-based, to eat more healthfully, but then surround them in fast food restaurants?” She urged the audience to work on changing current zoning practices to make sure there’s access to healthy food in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. As one of the biggest obstacles, she identifies the fact that super markets don’t go into low-income neighborhoods because they don’t make money – this practice of “red-lining” maps means that new development is based on profit, not need. Hence, the term “food desert.”
Karen advocates bringing chefs into low-income neighborhoods to teach those who’ve been left behind in our food system how to cook healthy, plant-based foods. The impacts of these systemic problems in our food system are many. Why, for example, does the Department of Education allow processed food in schools? “Parents should be outraged,” she says. I agree.
Richard McCarthy from Slow Food USA pointed out that many public schools today only allow 10 minute lunch periods. He believes that “eating lunch should be an academic subject – to learn where our food is grown, the art of discussion, and how to prepare healthy, plant-based meals...We’ve lost the art of eating together and building community.”
A Shifting Food System: Forcing Companies to Innovate
Meat and dairy lobbyists fight tooth and nail to keep beef, pork and poultry at the center of our food system even though the science is crystal clear that consumption of red meat is linked to chronic health problems such as heart disease and obesity. As Michele Simon of the Plant-Based Foods Association warns, the midwestern “meat” states have historically wielded a dangerous amount of control in Washington, and with Trump’s recent appointment of Sonny Perdue, the meat and dairy industries have unprecedented power.
But the incredible markets campaigning of many amazing groups over the years are working! The trends are clear: Consumers are eating less meat and more plant proteins - many out of concern for the environment, animal welfare and/or their own health. As Mintel’s 2016 Global Food and Drink Trends report predicts: “potential [meat] replacements appeal to the everyday consumer, foreshadowing a profoundly changed marketplace.” In fact, USDA data shows decreasing per capita American meat consumption over the last decade.
Meatingplace concludes: “Plant protein is in.” The industry publication’s data shows that there are “70 percent of meat eaters substituting a non-meat protein in a meal at least once a week and 22 percent saying they are doing it more often than a year ago.” The Wall Street Journal proclaims: “Anchoring a plate with a massive hunk of animal protein is so last century.”
It’s pretty incredible how the food industry is addressing this shift. As pointed out in Green Century Capital Management’s recent Tyson shareholder proposal, “Wendy’s, Denny’s, Subway, White Castle, Chili’s, TGI Friday’s and others now offer plant-based meals. Burger Kings’ former Chairman launched a plant-based meat company and McDonalds’ former CEO joined the board of Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat company. And ConAgra - once a major meat processor - helped build the Light Life brand of plant-based deli meats.”
The writing is on the walls. As Paul McCartney once said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls everyone would be vegetarian.” People are truly beginning to connect the dots between the food on their plate and melting polar ice caps. They’re realizing that eating plant-based not only makes you feel amazing, it’s better for the planet, too. And thanks to all of the amazing work of many groups, companies are being forced by their consumers to catch up.