Youth-Led Campaigns Demand Plant-Based Diets
Skipping meat once a week can reduce carbon emissions
By Zachary Smith
The presidents and prime ministers who gathered in Glasgow pledged to do all that they can to limit global warming.
Yet the food they were served suggests otherwise. And youth activists are keeping track.
More than 60 percent of the offerings on menus at the COP26 conference contained animal products.
The food served needs to be in line with the mission of the conference.
Half consisted of meat, with more than 20 dishes producing more carbon output than the average set by the 2015 Paris Agreement as the recommendation to limit global warming to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels.
Swedish startup Klimato calculated the carbon output of menu items to be mostly low to medium. The estimates were made by identifying the ingredients, their production method and their country of origin.
The menu transparency that allowed conference attendees to make more informed decisions also revealed the crux of the problem: Most of the food with a high ranking contained meat, showing that animal agriculture—whether it delivers food from close by or from a longer distance—intensifies global warming.
“Are we serious about climate action?” asks Caroline Wimberly, co-founder of Food@COP, a international youth-led group that petitioned for the event’s menu to be completely plant-based. “We need to take drastic steps to get to 2°C, much less 1.5°C. The food served needs to be in line with the mission of the conference.”
Food@COP’s petition, hosted on change.org, had 4,200 signatures and was backed by 200 organizations. The group, which never received a formal response from conference organizers, held events near COP26 on issues related to food and climate and how young people view the future of sustainability.
Two years ago, Wimberly, a former senior advisor on food and climate policy at the U.S. environmental nonprofit 50by40, and other youth activists worldwide founded Food@COP after observing the conference’s conflicting messages.
“In Greta [Thunberg]’s documentary on Hulu, you can see her at COP asking ‘Why is everyone eating meat here?’” says Lana Weidgenant, a co-founder of Food@COP and deputy director for Zero Hour, a youth-led climate justice organization with chapters across the United States. “Young people have spoken about this several times with the past COPs on how it’s hypocritical to not have more planet-friendly veggie options.”
By conservative estimates, food production accounts for a quarter of total global greenhouse gas emissions. In some countries, it’s more than a third. Raising and animals for meat and milk is the most carbon-intensive kind of farming, responsible for 14.5% of global carbon emissions.
Sowing and harvesting equipment and the trucks that move animals from feedlots to slaughter and food to warehouses all burn fuel. Supermarkets need lots of electricity to keep freezers and refrigerators running. Fertilizers are created with natural gases and coal, releasing additional carbon. And methane is released by beef and dairy cows as they digest their food and from the landfills where 33 percent of worldwide food waste decays.
A youth-led campaign in Texas
In El Paso, Texas, students pushed the school district to adopt Meatless Mondays in school cafeterias. One day a week, instead of breakfast sausage or pepperoni pizza, 54,000 students are served plant-based breakfasts and lunches such as potato burritos and enchiladas.
“That’s what Generation Z wants,” says Judy Estrada, assistant director for Food and Nutrition Services at El Paso Independent School District. “They want to save the planet however they can.”
At first, many parents complained about Meatless Mondays. Parents were concerned that plant-based items that mimic animal products, such as veggie nuggets, might not contain healthy ingredients.
The district responded by offering new dishes like a veggie power bowl, which uses recognizable ingredients including lettuce, beans and avocado. Other Meatless Monday meals in a city where more than 80 percent of the residents have Mexican roots feature familiar Southwestern and Mexican flavors.
Average pounds of meat Americans eat each year
“They make more of that connection between ‘Oh, I’m young, I need to be worried about what the future of the planet looks like,’” says Ron Hernandez, managing director of The Monday Campaigns.
The impact of eating less meat
Some critics of efforts to promote plant-based diets say personal choices won’t contribute substantially to slowing climate change. Still, this kind of easily accessible lifestyle adjustment could collectively make a difference, says Becky Ramsing, a registered dietician and public health professional at the Johns Hopkins center.
“It’s not a giant change, but it’s a bigger change than a lot of other shifts we might make in our personal actions,” Ramsing says.
If every American got in the habit of skipping meat just one or two days a week, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a few percentage points. Ramsing says many people shy away from the meatless idea because they think to comply they will have to go vegan, which feels unappealing or too difficult.
Americans eat on average 274 pounds of meat each year, making the United States the second-largest meat consumer globally, beaten out only by Hong Kong. Meat eating in the United States has increased by 40% per capita since the 1960s, even though 6 percent of the population is vegetarian and 3 percent is vegan, according to a recent national poll from the Vegetarian Resource Group
This growth was nurtured by the meat and dairy industry, which has lobbied and advertised for decades to become a prominent part of the average diet. And since 2000, these industries have spent $200 million to minimize the link between animal agriculture and climate change.
Documents obtained by The Guardian showed that at the U.N. Food Systems Summit on making agricultural systems more sustainable, the meat industry’s sustainable livestock group proposed an increase in production using technological innovations but provided few details on reducing emissions.
Helping the Most Vulnerable
For advocacy groups such as Food@COP, improving equity worldwide is essential to enacting meaningful food systems change.
“We’ve had a lot of engagements with indigenous youth…” says Mansha Kapur of Food@COP, “creating conversations surrounding some of the lesser-heard voices regarding food insecurity or other impacts of climate-unfriendly food options in international communities.”
The countries with the highest meat consumption are among the most developed and technologically advanced. Meanwhile, many countries that consume the lowest amounts are not industrialized and are predominantly located in Africa and the Middle East. These countries represent a third of the globe’s people, many of whom can not afford a healthy diet, never mind a climate-friendly one.
Food insecurity leaves the most vulnerable more susceptible to health risks, which the effects of climate change will only compound.