The World Health Organization has called climate change “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century,” echoing similar statements from the World Bank, the Lancet Commission on Climate Change, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As outlined in a recent government report, climate change affects health in many ways — from increased extreme events and vector-borne diseases to poor air quality and food insecurity. These concerns, in addition to less direct health impacts through global migration, political unrest and armed conflict, threaten our current and future patients’ health and livelihood.
The fact that Americans consume more than 80 billion pounds of meat annually is directly related to climate change. At more than 200 pounds of meat — most of which is red meat — per person each year, Americans’ voracious appetites have pushed the greenhouse gas emissions of livestock higher than the direct emissions of the entire transportation sector, according to some estimates. As meat consumption increases dramatically in developing countries, the carbon footprint of livestock is projected to continue growing, especially since very few emission-reduction plans include goals for livestock. In fact, livestock continues to be subsidized at astonishing rates, with about $53 billion in subsidies going to livestock production by OECD countries in 2013. In the United States, subsidies for commodity crops like corn and soy provide a cheap source of energy and protein for livestock, allowing farmers to move many animals into concentrated animal feeding operations (“CAFO”s) and decrease production costs. Artificially low meat prices, coupled with our growing disposable incomes and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, have saved meat its space at the table.
Though many fear moving away from meat-based calorie sources due to concerns about adequate iron or protein intake, the American Dietetic Association writes, “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits,” and that these diets “are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle.” Certainly, some thought is required to ensure adequate consumption of a few micronutrients; however, the same can be said of any diet.
Diets comprised primarily of minimally processed plant foods may offer substantial health benefits. As described by a 2014 literature review, eating “mostly plants” is ideal for health. The health effects of eating less meat are especially pronounced with regard to red meat, with one study finding that reducing red meat consumption to less than one-half serving per day could eliminate one in ten deaths from cardiovascular disease. Other studies have found that eliminating meat consumption may decrease rates of hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, several types of cancer, diverticulitis, gallstones, and other chronic conditions. Furthermore, eating less meat may contribute to increased lifespan by limiting circulating methionine and IGF-1. Clearly, health concerns should not prevent individuals from consuming less meat.
By reducing meat consumption to the 90 gram daily limit suggested by the Harvard healthy diet, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by billions of tons and cut climate change mitigation costs in half. Decreasing meat consumption even further would compound the benefits, as plant-based alternatives to meat produce 20 to 150 times fewer emissions per unit of protein. So what’s stopping us?
Making dramatic behavioral changes for something as abstract as climate change, which is not usually experienced personally, is exceptionally difficult. Taste, convenience, and habits weigh much more strongly into our everyday food choices than environmental concerns – especially since the link between climate change and the consumption of animal products is generally underestimated. However, one study showed that increased awareness of the environmental impact of meat consumption made those surveyed more willing to change their diets. As such, the first step forward is to increase awareness of the link between meat consumption and climate change.
The health of the planet and the health of our patients are interconnected. As individuals, we must reduce our consumption of meat and animal products. As future clinicians, we should educate our patients when appropriate, raise public awareness, and advocate for political action, like replacing commodity crop subsidies with subsidies for fruits and vegetables. In these ways, we can align our plates with the best interests of our planet and our patients.