Like many other Americans, I love meat. But as a climate reporter, it’s one of my biggest struggles, because I know that our love affair with meat takes a huge toll. The planetary health plate diet I’ve been eating for the past few weeks, however, has really helped me put in perspective what less conspicuous animal consumption looks like—and helped me recognize when a little meat is okay.
The average American ate 222 lbs. of chicken and beef last year, a new record high. Toss in pork, turkey, and other meats and that number goes up to 275 lbs. The staggering numbers reflect a food culture where meat sits at or near the center of the plate whether it’s bacon and eggs for breakfast, a ham sandwich for lunch, steak and potatoes for dinner, turkey for Thanksgiving, or ham on Easter.
It’s simply too much. North Americans consume 638 percent more meat than the planet can handle, with livestock responsible for about 8 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions owing to burping cows, manure management, and other factors. The world as a whole is at nearly triple its meat carrying capacity according the EAT-Lancet report that outlines the planetary health plate diet.
Republicans have recently tried to drum up fear that the Green New Deal would take away Americans’ meat and ice cream. It won’t, because the reality of what a climate-friendly diet looks like is far more nuanced. Meat can be part of it, just not in excess.
Because of the environmental toll of meat eating, along with the moral quandary of eating sentient beings and the local environmental degradation of factory farming, I don’t eat much of it to begin with. Overall, I have red meat once a month or less and usually get it from my local butcher since it’s a splurge item. I also eat chicken about twice a month, usually when getting lunch with coworkers.
For me, the small amount of meat eating the planetary health diet stipulates hasn’t really been that hard compared to, say, my adventures eating out while traveling last week. But the diet has made me think more purposefully about when I want to eat meat. That’s because it provides a (very small) daily recommended amount, though Walter Willet, one of the diet’s creators, told me dieters could stockpile that daily meat allowance and splurge.
So folks, today is the day to eat meat, though the decision was somewhat taken out of my hands. You see, it’s my birthday (no happy birthday song please), and my wife asked me last week to hold off on eating meat so we could go out tonight. Along with loving a good steak, I also love a good al pastor taco. I don’t know where we’re going, but I’ve been told it’s a place that does them well, and I’m excited to eat some.
The intentionality of eating meat coupled with the fact that the diet itself includes it has actually helped me feel somewhat better about eating meat in general. I’ve increasingly felt guilty about my seemingly climate unfriendly choices—each bite of medium rare flank steak has begun to feel like a tiny eulogy for the planet. Alternately, I turn to rationalizing it by patting myself on the back for some other climate-conscious life choice (I take public transit and bike! I usually only eat plants!), which honestly just feels performative.
The reality is that if Americans adopted an approach in line with the “flexitarian” diet outlined in the EAT-Lancet report of sticking with mostly plants with the occasional meat and dairy tossed in, it would do a world of good for the climate. Having everyone go vegan would likely do more good, but the returns are diminishing
“A flexitarian diet would reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by almost 80%, whilst a vegan one would lead to reductions of over 90%,” Marco Springmann, a researcher at Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food who has conducted research on the topic, told me. He also said focusing on a more plant-based diet has clear human health benefits in terms of mortality.
Americans’ identities are strongly tied up in eating meat, and a nation of vegans will not be born overnight or even in the next few decades. Even if it did happen, reshaping the food system in that way could create some serious nutritional concerns. The planetary health plate diet, though, shows a different path for retaining some semblance American culture and have it co-exist with the rest of the world. That’s enough to make me want to celebrate with tacos tonight.