Research from Yale University says more than half of Americans are willing to eat more plant-based foods, but 4 in 10 still don’t see how plant-based diets reduce environmental impacts.
Locally, meat lovers, produce fans, a rancher and grocers offered differing perspectives about the issue.
Globally, changes to food production and consumption are critical to reducing global warming and other environmental impacts, according to the study, which was published Feb. 13. Overall, Americans seem willing to switch to more vegetables, fruit and plant-based meat and dairy alternatives – as long as cost, convenience and taste aren’t an issue.
“Many American consumers are interested in eating a more healthy and climate-friendly diet,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “However, many simply don’t know yet which products are better or worse – a huge communication opportunity for food producers, distributors and sellers.”
Researchers from the Yale program and the Earth Day Network conducted the nationally representative survey of 1,043 people in a study called “Climate Change and the American Diet.” The Earth Day Network, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, funded the study. The Yale program is part of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
First, food production is among the leading sources of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, the study says.
Food production generates 9% to 30% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, although the percentage varies depending on how emissions are measured, according to several research articles and the Environmental Protection Agency.
It is also a significant contributor to biodiversity loss, deforestation, freshwater use and land-use change, the study said.
Beef, lamb and dairy production, as well as farm-raised crustaceans, tend to generate the highest greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein compared with other food products. Meanwhile, produce and nuts tend to produce the lowest emissions.
But nationally, many Americans do not make the connection between their food choices and environmental impacts.
Locally, 6 out of 6 people asked on Main Avenue in Durango agreed food production had at least some environmental impacts.
About half of participants in the Yale study, 51%, said they would be willing to eat more plant-based foods if they had more information about the environmental impact of different products and foods. Many, however, “rarely” or “never” look for that information, the study said.
Of the six people in Durango, three already preferred more plants in their diets. Two said they were avid meat fans but were open to adding more produce to their meals.
“We’re open ... I don’t want anyone telling me what I have to eat,” said Kelly Charltan, a Farmington resident, visiting Durango.
Five of the six said people should do more to learn about the environmental impacts of food production.
“If you want to (do the research), have at it,” said June Wintermate, a New Mexico resident.
Grocery stores could take advantage of the climate-focused clientele through marketing or signs. Several grocery stores – such as Albertsons, Natural Grocers, Nature’s Oasis and Farmers Fresh in Ignacio – already include some signs to help customers see which options are local or organic.
Amos Lee, manager at Farmers Fresh, said labeling might help if people are already environmentally minded, but most of his customers care more about cost.
“I haven’t found that there’s a lot of demand for that. Nor have I found that people are really willing to pay a premium. It’s kind of driven by the dollar,” he said.
Cost, taste and convenience are big factors when it comes to diet. But for those who do eat a plant-based diet, environmental impacts are a common motivator.
The majority of study participants, 94%, said they are willing to eat more fruit and vegetables. More than half said they are willing to eat more plant-based meat alternatives.
Over half, 54%, of participants were willing to eat less red meat (beef, lamb, pork), a concern for ranching industries.
J. Paul Brown, a prominent Ignacio sheep rancher, disagreed with the study’s findings, saying it could be funded by anti-meat groups. Because the Earth Day Network is a nonprofit, its funders are not public record.
He believed the environmental impact of ranching was positive, and people would continue enjoying meat for its nutritional benefits.
“I don’t think the impact will be a huge impact on producers,” he said. “... I think there will always be a high demand, especially worldwide.”
The Earth Day Network said the data are a “wake-up call” for the climate movement.
“Animal agriculture is one of the major drivers of our climate crisis,” said Jillian Semaan, Earth Day Network food and environment director. “We need to provide people with the relevant information that connects food choices, animal agriculture and climate change.”