June 25, 2013

Meat Consumption and Climate Change: Which NGOs Are Doing What?

Ruthie Burrows

Ruthie Burrows

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

Since at least the 2006 publication of Livestock’s Long Shadow, which found that livestock production accounts for 18 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the link between livestock production and climate change has been well recognized by experts. And while there are several tactics for reducing meat consumption—and thereby reducing livestock production GHG emissions—some tactics are used more often than others.

Governments could choose, for example, to impose meat excise taxes. But curbing meat consumption through promotion of vegetarianism and veganism has become an increasingly popular avenue for mitigating climate change on an individual level. Instead of relying on governmental action, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have developed campaigns and educational programs aimed at reducing individuals’ consumption of GHG-intensive meat products and otherwise changing dietary behaviors. Interestingly, according to a study by the CLF’s Linnea Laestadius, PhD, MPP, Roni Neff, PhD, and colleagues, environmental NGOs have been lagging behind animal-protection and food-focused NGOs in promoting reduced meat consumption as a means of mitigating climate change.

The study, published in this week’s issue of Climatic Change, examined the meat consumption reduction efforts of three types of NGOs—environmental, food-focused, and animal-protection—in the U.S., Canada, and Sweden. The most prominent or most active NGOs in each country were chosen for analysis. Cursory information about meat and climate change campaigns was obtained by website searches. Next, Laestadius personally conducted phone, and when possible, face-to-face interviews with one member from each NGO. The interviewees were asked about their respective organizations’ campaigns linking climate change and meat consumption.

The study found that animal-protection and food-focused NGOs were more likely to carry out formal meat reduction campaigns and more likely to engage the public in outreach programs than environmental NGOs. In fact, three animal-protection NGOs went beyond their traditional missions with campaigns focused on raising awareness of the link between meat consumption and climate change, and most animal-protection groups promoted Meatless Monday campaigns. Yet many environmental groups lacked dedicated campaigns related to food and climate change issues. Citing industrial agriculture as the main problem, several environmental groups promoted consumption of grass-fed or pasture-raised meat. However, according to several studies cited by Laestadius et al., grass-fed ruminant animals may actually release more GHGs than those raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Out of the 18 environmental NGOs interviewed, Laestadius did highlight one U.S.-based diet and climate change campaign—the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change+Health, an online resource guide available to those curious about how meat consumption contributes to climate change.

So what’s next for herbivores and omnivores? Very few of these organizations were actively participating in national policy development, with the exception of NGOs in Sweden. The authors call for an expansion of campaigns calling for further educational campaigns with clear messages.

In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that for the first time in human history, CO2 emissions had surpassed 400 parts per million at its acclaimed Mauna Loa facility. Still a climate change mitigation deal will most likely not be agreed upon in the 113th Congress. With meaningful policy change seemingly far off in the U.S., changing your diet can be a great way to make a difference by curbing your individual carbon emissions. You can sign a pledge on the Meatless Monday webpage to commit to veg out once a week.

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