Today is Earth Day
You probably already knew this. Especially if your social media is filled with companies touting their green policies and sustainability commitments.
What is Earth Day?
But Earth Day has actually been around since the early 1970s. It was spearheaded by Wisconsin Junior Senator Gaylord Nelson, who wanted to raise awareness of air and water pollution.
The annual event originally started as a college campus teach-in on environmental damage. Now, it garners the support of more than one billion people worldwide every year and has put companies under an uncomfortable spotlight.
But, are the past 50 years of environmental action completely futile if we’re not willing to talk about meat?
‘The leading cause of climate change’
A 2019 report, published by Dr. Sailesh Rao, executive director of Climate Healers, branded animal agriculture as the ‘leading cause of climate change’.
The white paper says animal agriculture accounts for around 87 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. It also says the annual methane emissions from animal agriculture alone causes more incremental global warming than the annual CO2 emissions from all fossil fuel sources combined.
In its conclusion, the report illustrates ‘the need to transition to a global plant-based economy first and that blindly eliminating fossil fuel usage first will accelerate the warming of the planet’.
(Editor’s note: Rao’s 2019 report has been criticized by some, who claim the 87 percent figure is too high. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that animal agriculture is to blame for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.)
Similarly, a leaked draft report on climate change and land use pushes plant-based diets as a means to reduce greenhouse emissions.
The report was drafted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It argues the current climate crisis cannot be solved only by cutting emissions from transport, factories, and power plants – urging changes in the way food is produced and how land is used.
‘Reduce meat and dairy intake’
More recently, the UK government was urged to reduce its meat and dairy intake by 20 percent to achieve its 2050 carbon-neutral goal.
The Sixth Carbon Budget report describes ruminant meat as the most ‘GHG-intensive source of protein’ and argued that although pigs and poultry produce fewer emissions in comparison – ‘there are concerns that imported animal feed may have high embedded emissions’.
It also praised plant-based protein sources for having ‘significantly fewer GHG emissions than animal-sourced proteins when compared on a like-for-like basis’.
You get the point.
Animal agriculture is undeniably one of the main drivers of the climate crisis. Therefore, it needs to be at the forefront of Earth Day.
Of course, there are many things we can do to help the environment. Also, it needs to be said, eschewing animal products doesn’t give you a free pass to ignore what other un-eco-friendly habits you’ve picked up.
Fast-fashion is killing the planet. Single-use plastic is killing the planet. Flying, fracking, and wasting food are all killing the planet.
But it makes sense to tackle arguably the biggest contributor of them all.
As Earth Day admits: “Food production and consumption are rapidly deteriorating the planet and what we are eating is pushing the planet to the breaking point on climate change and deforestation.
“Shifting to a plant-based diet and avoiding animal products relieves our planet of the burdens of animal agriculture, a huge contributor to ecological destruction.”
Earth Day also draws attention to how much water and land is needed to produce meat.
It explains: “A single pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water. On top of depleting valuable resources, producing meat contributes a staggering level of greenhouse gas emissions.
“However, a plant-based burger generates 90 percent less GHGs and has 99 percent less water impact and has 93 percent less impact on land use.”
A ‘carbon opportunity cost’
And even if veganism isn’t feasible for you, millions of people could actively reduce their meat consumption if they tried. The results? Pretty shocking.
A 2020 study found ditching ‘land-hungry’ products like meat and dairy could remove up to 16 years’ worth of CO2 emissions by 2050.
According to the study’s abstract: “Extensive land uses to meet dietary preferences incur a ‘carbon opportunity cost’ given the potential for carbon sequestration through ecosystem restoration.
“Here we map the magnitude of this opportunity, finding that shifts in global food production to plant-based diets by 2050 could lead to sequestration of 332–547 GtCO2, equivalent to 99–163 percent of the CO2 emissions budget consistent with a 66 percent chance of limiting warming to 1.5 °C.”
The ever-recurring goal of 1.5 degrees Celcius is the minimum target, as set out in the Paris Agreement.
But as food expert Bruce Friedrich once told PBN: “It will be impossible for any government to meet their obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement unless conventional meat production goes down.”
Are brands ‘green washing’ Earth Day?
Thankfully, some companies are starting to recognize the link much-needed link between animal ag and Earth Day.
Fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. recently announced one of its outlets in LA will have its first-ever ‘plant-based meat takeover’ in collaboration with Beyond Meat.
Similarly, Starbucks is giving its customer’s chance to win a year’s worth of dairy-free drinks ahead of Earth Day. It has also partnered with One Tree Planted to help support reforestation projects.
Of course, these kinds of initiatives can sometimes be perceived as insincere and can even attract criticism.
In fact, vegan charity PETA accused Starbucks of ‘green washing’. This was mainly due to the fact it still charges extra for plant-based milk in some countries.
And it’s kind of true, both companies could have done more. Both companies should do more.
But, there are a lot of nuances with these kinds of campaigns and it’s still nice to see big brands acknowledging how damaging meat and dairy is.
Pressure from farmers
Because unfortunately, there are many companies that are still completely in denial. Or, simply cave in to pressure from the livestock sector.
Take the children’s TV show Blue Peter for example.
It recently backtracked on encouraging viewers to help fight the climate crisis by opting for a meat-free meal because it sparked outrage amongst farmers on Twitter.
But it was completely right. We need to reduce our meat intake if we want a shot at meeting the Paris Agreement. And, to put it bleakly, to stay alive.
The last 100 years of reckless living, of airplanes and fossil fuels, of fast fashion and plastic have cut the Earth Deep. Reducing our meat intake will allow us to heal.
This article was originally published on April 22, 2021. It was updated on December 15, 2022 to include mention of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ research on animal farming and greenhouse gas emissions.