Climate-friendly diets can make a huge difference, even if you don’t go completely vegan | Environment
Oho chooses what you eat? If your answer is “yes”, you are partly right. You can buy your own groceries and order your own meals at restaurants, but it’s the food industry that determines what gets stocked on store shelves and listed on menus.
“The institutions around us affect food choices,” said Matthew Hayek, assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University. Your choices are narrowed down by what’s in the supermarket, your workplace or school canteen, the restaurants in the mall on the way home, he said.
This means that for people who want to reduce the carbon footprint of their food, the greenest option is not always on the table. Or if so, it’s not the most appetizing or convenient.
What we eat has a huge environmental impact. Scientists estimate that food production is responsible for 35% of global warming greenhouse gas emissions, with meat responsible for more than double the pollution of fruits, grains and green vegetables.
In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report urged world leaders, especially those in developed countries, to support a transition to sustainable, healthy and low-emission diets to help mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis.
But the burden can’t rest on individuals making personal food choices, experts point out – growers, retailers, restaurants, workplaces and government must help make plant-based foods convenient, appealing and tasty.
“It is difficult for people to change their diet”
According to the IPCC report, eating less meat is one of the most significant changes people can make to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help reduce deforestation and even decrease the risk of transmission of pandemic diseases. from animals to humans.
The changes don’t have to be extreme. Eating a healthy Mediterranean-style diet — rich in grains, vegetables, nuts, and moderate amounts of fish and poultry — could be nearly as effective as going vegetarian or vegan, the report says. If everyone met basic dietary guidelines, which for most people in developed countries means more fruits and vegetables and less red meat, emissions could drop 29% by 2050, a study has found.
“But it’s hard for people to change their diets,” said Caroline Bushnell of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for plant-based and cultured meat.
Consumers often say they are motivated to eat healthier and more sustainably. But given the choice between a better-for-the-planet but not particularly appetizing dish, and a mouth-watering, meat-rich option, people tend to listen to their instincts, not their conscience.
It’s like giving someone a choice between fries and a side salad, Bushnell said. “Most people don’t choose the side salad – it’s not really an equivalent option.”
GFI wants big food manufacturers and processors to “change the way the foods people love are made,” she said. “Instead of advocating for behavior change, we approach it from a supply side perspective.”
Big meat companies and consumer food brands are leveraging plant-based proteins and lab-grown meat to help them meet a growing appetite for more climate-friendly foods and reduce their own emissions.
McDonald’s is testing McPlant, while Burger King is selling Impossible Whoppers and its UK branch is aiming to have half its menu plant-based by 2030. Ikea has promised the same in its restaurants by 2025.
Perdue makes hybrid chicken and vegetable nuggets for kids and Tyson, which now markets itself as a “protein” company, has launched its own brand of plant-based products. Last year, JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, acquired a cultured meat startup and plans to start selling lab-grown steaks, sausages and burgers in 2024.
With more products to sell, retailers also need to promote non-animal protein. The UK’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, for example, has set a five-year target to increase plant-based protein sales by 300%.
Getting customers to put plant-based alternatives in their carts starts with placing those products next to what they are alternative to. atBushnell said — meatless burgers near ground beef, vegan cheeses among conventional Goudas and mozzarella — rather than relegating them to a specialty section.
Placement in the refrigerated section was crucial to generalizing alternative milks. The tactic was pioneered in the 1990s by the founder of Silk, who began packaging his company’s soymilk in traditional milk cartons and persuading grocery stores to stock them in the dairy crate. Today, cow’s milks mingle with a host of nut and grain milks and 90% of alternative milk sales come from the fridge rather than the stable aisle.
The infiltration of alternative protein companies into supermarket real estate, however, has not been smooth sailing. Several states, under pressure from agricultural associations, have passed laws restricting the use of words such as “hamburger”, “sausage” and “hot dog” on plant-based products, on the grounds that they could mislead customers. A similar law has been rejected in the EU, although the bloc still bans the labeling of vegan products with dairy names.
“Consumers aren’t confused,” Bushnell said. “They don’t think when they buy a plant-based hot dog it’s a beef hot dog, but they know how to use it.”
Food choices are rarely rational
In 2020, the nonprofit research organization World Resources Institute published a report looking at the most effective ways to encourage people to eat less meat based on the psychology of food choices. One of the strongest findings, the researchers wrote, was “that decision-making about what to eat is rarely a rational, carefully considered process.” People crave familiarity and are swayed by subtle physical and linguistic cues.
The report advises food industry players to offer more plant-based options, make them taste good and make them sound good. While fried chicken is ‘crispy’ and burgers are ‘juicy’, menus often describe plant-based options as ‘healthy’, ‘vegan’ or ‘meatless’ – none of which research shows makes people want to order them.
Using language to conjure up flavor and mouthfeel (rather than health or ethics) makes people much more likely to order a vegetarian meal. When the cafes of British food retailer Sainsbury’s renamed their meatless sausages and mash “Cumberland sausage and spicy vegetarian mash”, sales soared 76%.
Other language nudges can promote plant-based options by highlighting their environmental benefits. Among the most effective messages from the WRI research were calls for people to be part of something that is already happening: “90% of Americans are making the switch to eating less meat. Join this growing movement. Or they were easy-to-understand comparisons: “swapping a single meat dish for a plant-based dish saves greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years”.
“Both are about making a choice without consequence a bit more consequential,” said Sophie Attwood, senior behavioral scientist at WRI.
It also helps, Attwood said, to put vegetable options at the top of the menu and interspersed with meat dishes rather than separate ones. Studies have shown that making vegetable dishes the default choice makes people much more likely to order them.
Companies and institutions can reduce their emissions by offering more plant-based meals. “These are the most important changes an organization can make. What do you serve? What is the relationship between vegetarian and meat dishes? said Edwina Hughes, manager of WRI’s Cool Food program, which has pledged to more than 50 organizations to reduce the climate impact of their food by 25% by 2030.
But some experts say real change must include legislative measures, such as taxing meat, as some European countries are considering. That seems unlikely in the United States, even though a study found more than a third of Americans would support it, even as inflation drives up food prices.
Making progress requires all the tools available, Hayek said: educating people about the climate impact of food; give them more and better herbal options; guide choice by modifying the default value, offering incentives and imposing disincentives (such as taxes); restrict and in some cases eliminate most meat options (as some European universities have done). It worked for lowering smoking rates, Hayek said, and it might work for food.
“What does it look like if we are really dedicated to making a concerted, holistic attempt to address food choices?” He asked. “Let’s try.”