Wendy Johnson and Johnny Rafkin own Jóia Food Farm near Charles City in northeast Iowa,…
Like most people, you probably care about the planet and are looking for ways to make a positive impact. If you depended on the headlines and social media for advice, you might be forgiven for thinking going vegan or switching to industrially processed lab “meat” is the answer.
Unfortunately, in today’s polarized, soundbite-driven society, what should read: “High-consuming countries and individuals need to reduce consumption of industrial meat” becomes “Meat is killing the planet.” Except that it’s not.
Yes, industrial food animal production — think thousands of pigs, chickens and cattle confined in barns or on dirt feedlots — is absolutely harmful to the environment, but there are other ways to raise animals. Demonizing all meat and dairy is making us miss the higher-impact solutions right in front of our eyes. While deciding to stop eating animal products from sustainably managed farms does NOT have a proven climate benefit, we know that reducing our consumption of non-renewable energy or cutting back on air travel definitely does.
So we’d like to share a simple list of actions you can take to help the planet instead of giving up meat altogether. We know some of these are controversial but they are based in real science. We figure that when people have good information about the impacts of their lifestyles they can make their own decisions. Please note that for the purposes of this post, figures are based on standard American consumption.
10 things you can do for the planet instead of giving up on animal agriculture
- Switch to certified sustainable meat and dairy. Very few labels guarantee this (we certify most of them at A Greener World) and most claims out there are just dressing up the same old industrial products. Learn about your food labels here.
- Stop buying stuff you don’t need. Excessive production and consumption of any consumer goods (which often end up in the trash) has a significant, and many argue unnecessary, impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. Stop. Now.
- Switch to renewable energy. We recognize not everyone has this option. It is becoming easier, so do it if you can. (For other similarly ranked emissions cuts see #4, #5 and #6.) It’s also worth noting that most people can cut energy consumption (see #9).
- Get more miles per gallon – or eliminate gallons per mile. The ultimate would be to live car-free; and while we know that’s a high goal you can also significantly improve your fuel efficiency with a motorcycle or hybrid vehicle. Use your car sparingly. Simply keeping your car running efficiently and pumping up your tires to the correct pressure will help.
- Stop flying. Or fly less and offset your emissions with a reputable organization (read more here about the mixed bag of offsetting emissions).
- Have one fewer child, cat or dog. We recognize this is a really tough topic and not anyone else’s business, but data shows having one fewer child has the single highest impact on emissions. Pets consume significant energy and resources, too.
- Vote and advocate for climate policies with demonstrated positive effects on emissions. The impact of this is incalculable.
- Don’t buy into fake “meat.” It’s big, it’s processed, it’s expensive and it’s unproven–but it’s already making a lot of shareholders very rich at the expense of real solutions, like supporting the expansion of AGW-certified farms. Instead, choose nutritionally appropriate amounts of high-welfare, grassfed meat and dairy from AGW-certified farms practicing climate-friendly agriculture. (We don’t really need grilled chicken on everything, do we?)
- Reduce your energy consumption. Ditch your dryer, use energy-efficient light bulbs and reuse/recycle. These add up to modest emissions reductions and they’re relatively easy to do. Also, while many people are already living small by necessity, for those with large, underutilized houses and an interest in reducing emissions, consider downsizing. Less space to heat and cool, fewer rooms to buy stuff for (see #1) and less to clean!
- Share solid information about food and farming with your friends and family. Try to fact-check your social media before sharing. There’s an awful lot of misleading information out there! Get started here.
Starting your journey…
The first step in all of this is calculating your baseline emissions to get your ‘carbon footprint.’ A vegan with three houses, jet-setting across the globe, will have a far higher carbon footprint than a subsistence goat-herder in a one-room hut! Of course, most of us fit neither description, and our lifestyles will impact our emissions. There are many carbon footprint calculators out there, but remember that almost all estimates of our food-related emissions are calculated using industrial agriculture figures (with their inherent dependence on fossil fuels, grain and massive deforestation). So if you’re mostly eating Certified Grassfed by AGW beef, your actual emissions will be lower — plus you’re also supporting better water stewardship, responsible antibiotic use, independent farmers and high-welfare animal treatment.
But however you crunch the numbers, diet is typically a much smaller share of our individual emissions than energy consumption and transportation — particularly air travel. So while we should all be pushing for real policy action on the climate emergency, when it comes to the individual level we have to choose between real change and the appearance of change. Companies are doing some hard selling on the supposed righteousness of plant-based diets, particularly highly processed (and highly profitable) ‘meat alternatives’, but that probably won’t help our grandkids have a liveable planet — and it certainly won’t support the mass transition to low-input, sustainable animal farming we need for a sustainable future.
Our advice? Work out your baseline emissions, then pick something from the list above and do your best. Until our elected officials start taking the climate emergency seriously, it’s up to us to take the lead.