A documentary called “Cowspiracy” came out in 2013 about the devastating effects that the animal agricultural industry has on our planet. I remember watching it and feeling shocked by what I had learned: that raising and producing meat accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined. And the awe increased when it was obvious to me that no one was talking about it – or if they were, it was very quietly.
I grew up in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” era and was taught that driving less and turning off lights might help reduce my carbon footprint. But not once had I been told to eat less meat.
This week, however, that message has made international headlines with the release of a report by the British medical journal The Lancet. Compiled by 30 scientists and food policy experts from around the world, the report calls for the “Great Food Transformation,” transitioning much of the planet to a plant-based diet and cutting meat and sugar consumption by as much as 50 percent. The authors say that this would allow climate-change-inducing gases to be reduced while reserving enough land to feed a world population of 10 billion, the expected figure by 2050.
So that’s why no one has been talking about it. People, especially in Western countries in North America, South America and Europe, love their meat. Asking people to give up their burgers is like moving Christmas to July – basically a nonstarter.
But the group is moving forward with its findings and will reach out to individual governments and the World Health Organization on their crusade. Some of the things they’ll be asking people to do? For North Americans, it’s cut down red-meat consumption to a burger a week and a large steak a month. A couple portions of chicken and fish each week are OK, but the rest of people’s protein should come from nuts, legumes and vegetables.
In fact, for a plant-based diet, half of everyone’s plates should be fruit and vegetables.
"We are not talking about a deprivation diet here; we are talking about a way of eating that can be healthy, flavorful and enjoyable," Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, one of the leaders on the commission, told The Guardian.
Not only will the diet help save the planet, say its authors, but it could save up to 11 million lives too. A plant-based diet low in meat, saturated fat and sugar lowers rates of heart disease and cancer, the two biggest killers globally.
Of course, the public is having mixed reactions about the announcement; no one wants to give up their right to eat meat. That personal sacrifice infringes on freedoms. But on the flip side, parts of the population know that everyone must chip in to help solve a global issue.
Regardless, I didn’t find any shock in reading the headlines, just a sense of gratitude that it’s now an international conversation.
Christine Benedetti writes about food here every other week. Mostly the plant kind. She’s editor-in-chief of Aspen magazine, but you can reach her @cabenedetti.