If we want the US’s majestic national parks, clean air and water for future generations we must press leaders to address food’s environmental impact.
‘Raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.’ Photograph: David Chang/EPA
Our collective minds are stuck on this idea that talking about food’s environmental impact risks taking something very intimate away from us. In fact it’s just the opposite. Reconsidering how we eat offers us hope, and empowers us with choice over what our future planet will look like. And we can ask our local leaders – from city mayors to school district boards to hospital management – to help, by widening our food options.
On Monday and Tuesday, the city of Chicago is hosting a summit for the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy to discuss climate solutions cities can undertake. Strategies to address and lower food’s impact should be front and center.
Animal agriculture is choking the Earth, and the longer we turn a blind eye, the more we limit our ability to nourish ourselves, protect waterways and habitats, and pursue other uses of our precious natural resources. Raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest source of emissions and greater than all transportation combined. It also uses about 70% of agricultural land, and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.
On top of this, eating too much meat and dairy is making us sick, greatly increasing our risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, several major cancers (including breast, liver and prostate) and obesity. Diets optimal for human health vary, according to David Katz, of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, “but all of them are made up mostly of whole, wholesome plant foods”.
So what gives? Why can’t we see the forest for the bacon? The truth can be hard to swallow: that we simply need less meat and dairy and more plant-based options in our food system if we’re to reach our climate goals.
‘The Avatar movie set had plant-based menus.’ Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Everett/Rex Features
This can start with individual action. Five years ago, our family felt hopeless about climate change, and helpless to make meaningful change. But when we connected the dots on animal agriculture’s impact on the environment, coupled with the truth about nutrition, we took heart because it gave us something we could actually do.
To create change at the scale needed, this will take more than individual choice – we need to get climate leaders on board about the impact of food. Cities and counties have used their buying power to transition fleets from diesel to electric, and we need to do the same with how we purchase food. We have done this in our own community, moving the lunch program of Muse School, in Calabasas, California, and the Avatar movie set to plant-based menus. Scaling up initiatives like these can make a big difference: if the US reduced meat consumption by 50%, it’s the equivalent of taking 26 million cars off the road. We think that’s damn hopeful.
Decision-makers on all levels can make it easier for us to eat better, by expanding access to food options that are good for our health, affordable, and climate-friendly. Nationwide, cities and school districts have adopted food purchasing policies that include environment, health and fair labor standards. The city of Chicago is a recent adopter of this Good Food Purchasing Program, and so the solutions-focus of the summit is the perfect place to discuss how food can move us toward climate goals. In the same breath that we discuss fossil fuels, we should be talking animal ag, or we’re missing a big part of the problem – and a big part of the solution.
Yes, food is inherently personal. It’s the cornerstone of holidays, it fuels high school athletes and long workdays, and it nourishes nursing mothers and growing children. And yes, Americans love meat and cheese. But more than that, we love our majestic national parks, family beach vacations and clean air and water for our children and grandchildren.
As individuals, we can make choices on how to better nourish our families, and as citizens, we can encourage local leaders to make choices that will allow us to enjoy our land and natural resources now and in the future.
• James Cameron is a film-maker and deep-sea explorer. Suzy Amis Cameron is a founder of Muse School and Plant Power Task Force.
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