This week, both the World Resources Institute (WRI) and MorningStar Farms — producer of veggie burgers, sausages and other faux meat items beloved by vegetarians across the U.S. — have unveiled research asserting that the average American could cut their diet-related environmental impacts by nearly half just by eating less meat and dairy.
WRI’s Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future presents solutions to the challenge of feeding a growing population by reducing animal protein consumption, especially beef, and helping shift billions of people to more sustainable diets. The paper is the 11th installment of the World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future, which is exploring ways to close a 70 percent gap between food available today and expected demand in 2050. WRI finds shifting to diets with a greater share of plant-based foods can help close the food gap by 30 percent.
It’s been long asserted that meat and dairy production puts increasing pressure on land, water and the climate. Beef alone uses 20 times more land and generates 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions than beans (per gram of protein), while also costing at least 3 times more than beans. Shifting Diets shows that when factoring in land use, the greenhouse gas emissions from people’s diets are almost on par with their energy use.
“Food is the mother of all sustainability challenges. We are what we eat and what we eat has a profound impact on the planet. Around the world people are converging on diets high in calories, meat and dairy, with dire consequences for the health of the planet," said Janet Ranganathan, VP for Science and Research at WRI. "Shifting Diets should be on the agenda of every world leader. It’s a threat multiplier, driving water insecurity, deforestation, climate change, and a global epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases."
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Meanwhile, according to a new Life Cycle Assessment1 (LCA) released Tuesday by MorningStar Farms, opting for a meatless meal can save, on average, roughly 20 square feet of land that would be used to produce meat, 70 gallons of water, and the amount of greenhouse gases you’d create from driving a car 3.5 miles. The LCA found that if every single American adult switched a meat-containing meal for a meatless once a week for a year, we could save up to:
In conjunction with this new data, MorningStar Farms has launched the Veg Effect CalculatorTM – with a few simple calculations, people can easily determine how their personal food choices affect the world we live in, and how one small change to the way they eat, over time, can create significant environmental benefits. MorningStar Farms created the Veg Effect Calculator with Quantis, a leader in life cycle assessment consulting, to conduct a study comparing the environmental impact of veggie meals, meat-containing meals, and several MorningStar Farms products.
“MorningStar Farms is passionate about creating products that will change not just the way people eat, but also the world,” said Todd Smith, Director of Brand and Innovation Marketing at MorningStar Farms, a Kellogg company. “We’re on a mission to show people the many different ways to veg, and how even one simple change can lead to a world of difference.”
While vegetarian and vegan diets have much lower environmental impacts than the average American diet, it is unrealistic to think everyone will stop eating meat. Working with modelers at CIRAD and INRA, WRI evaluated 8 alternative diet scenarios and found the average American could cut their diet-related environmental impacts by nearly half just by eating less meat and dairy. Even small dietary shifts — such as replacing beef with chicken or fish — can significantly reduce agricultural resource use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Many people — especially in rich countries — also eat much more protein than they need: For example, the average American man eats nearly 100 g of protein per day, almost double the amount of protein he needs (56 g). WRI’s report shows that they could cut back on meat and dairy while easily meeting their protein needs. A much smaller gap than people realize exists between how much protein they need and how much they’re already getting from plant-based sources such as beans, grains, soy and vegetables. To make sustainable diet choices easier for consumers, WRI has introduced a new Protein Scorecard, ranking foods from lowest (plant-based foods) to highest impact (beef, goat and lamb).
To that end, WRI created the Shift Wheel (left), which harnesses marketing and behavior change tactics the food industry already uses to influence consumer purchasing. It offers strategies for companies, NGOs, governments and social influencers to increase the share of plant-based protein in people’s diets.
“Consumers typically shop on habit, picking up what they remember or see in store. Simply telling someone about the environmental impact of what they buy has minimal influence," said WRI Senior Fellow Daniel Vennard. "We need creative new solutions that work in line with how an average person actually shops and orders, which is why we created the Shift Wheel.”
As a next step, WRI will put the Shift Wheel into action by forming a coalition of leading food service companies, food manufacturers, and restaurants to develop and test new ideas.