Thursday, March 30, 2017

Linking Meat to Climate Change

Published as a podcast on Friday 31st March at iTunes, Stitcher and

Kristie Middleton
Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 31st March. I'm Anthony Day and this week we're talking about meat and climate change. How is meat linked to climate change? Can what you eat have an effect on global warming? "Yes", is the answer from the Humane Society of the United States and we'll meet two people from that organisation in the moment and they will explain how and why that's true.

You'll find links to my stories and a complete transcript of the interview below.

First, some headlines this week. Although Donald Trump appears to have failed to dismantle Obamacare it looks as though he’ll have more success in repealing Obama’s clean air legislation. EPA chief Scott Pruitt says that this will permit cheaper coal-fired power and create more mining jobs. It's good news, he says, for industry and for the environment. Exactly how he quantifies the benefits to the environment is not clear, but of course in his view it cannot do any harm because he refuses to believe that CO2 emissions have anything to do with climate change and rejects the scientific evidence. This is in direct contradiction of statements on the EPA website.

Dr Helen Harwatt
The move away from coal seems to be gathering pace across the world. In 2016 there was a 48% fall in planned coal units and a 62% drop in new starts. Most of this is due to changing policies in India and China. See the Boom & Bust 2017 Report produced by Coalswarm, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. 

I mentioned last time that 2016 was yet another hottest year on record. The World Meteorological Organisation reports: “Climate breaks multiple records in 2016, with global impacts.” It expects extreme and unusual weather trends to continue in 2017. You can read the press release here.

Turning to transport news, the Wright One, an electric plane, could carry 150 people on journeys of less than 500 miles within the next 10 years according to reports from the BBC. That could make London to Paris electric flights a reality. EasyJet is said to be interested, although the plane is not yet in development. The key issue is battery technology which is developing rapidly but has not yet reached the necessary power to weight ratio. The problem is that as batteries get more and more energy-dense we have seen that they can catch fire or explode. There will also be a need for a completely new regulatory framework.

A TED Talk you should see. Styrofoam - expanded polystyrene - is a versatile plastic used for throwaway cups, cutlery and toys and for packaging goods like TVs, washing machines and so on. It’s generally thrown away because styrofoam can’t be recycled economically. But maybe not any more. Ashton Cofer explains in this video how he and his classmates  have worked out how to convert styrofoam into activated carbon, as used in water filters.

And now to the main event:

Anthony: Today we have two guests on the Sustainable Futures Report. First, Kristie Middleton who is a senior food policy director for The Humane Society of the United States. She’s author of a number of articles in this field, there’s one that caught my eye, The Chicken in the Room at the Paris Climate Talks, that’s something we must talk about later. She’s also just published a book, Meatless: Transform the Way You Eat and Live One Meal at a Time. That’s published in the United States but you can get it for the Kindle via Amazon wherever you are. And our other guest is Helen Harwatt, Dr. Helen Harwatt, who is formerly an environmental nutrition research fellow at the Loma Linda University in California. She’s now a freelance sustainability researcher, her key interests focus on the potential contribution on sustainable diets to climate change mitigation. And she’s published a number of articles in scientific journals on food and the environment so we welcome you both, thank you very much for taking part. 

Kristie: Thank you so much for having us.
Helen: Yeah, thank you.

Anthony: Okay. So what we want to talk about today is the link between climate change and meat consumption. So, that’s going to be our first question. Helen, can you explain how that works?
Helen: Sure, yes, so there’s a few things to mention here, starting with the total greenhouse gas emission contribution that the livestock sector makes and that is around 15 percent, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. And this is just worth pointing out that there is some interest in issues related to the direct greenhouse gas emissions from the animals. So here we have methane and nitrous oxide being the main contribution comes from livestock for those two key greenhouse gas emissions. And a really important thing to mention here is that methane has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide, and we know that carbon dioxide is the current focus of climate change policy efforts, but actually methane has a higher warming potential than carbon dioxide and coupled with a shorter lifetime in the atmosphere could really be key to achieving short term reductions in temperature and avoiding those dangerous tipping points. And we also see that indirect greenhouse gas emissions are very important, as well, so this is for example from land used to feed crops and mainly in the change of land use for example deforestation. So the Brazilian Amazon is an example: 70 percent of deforestation is directly linked to livestock production. And this is really important because we’re losing really important carbon stores and interfering with the natural carbon cycle. And land use is really crucial for meeting climate change goals. So we were really looking to offset greenhouse gas emissions through various land use. So, for example, restoring natural habitats to forests and currently animal agriculture takes up 30 percent of all ice-free land. And an interesting report just out last week from researchers at the University of Aberdeen showed that 85 percent of the UK’s total land footprint is associated with meat and dairy production. Last year researchers from Cambridge University showed that a 50 percent reduction in calories from animal products in the UK combined with restoring the land spared from animal agriculture to its natural habitat would actually reduce UK’s emissions by about 80 percent, so this is huge. 

Anthony: Let me just clarify that point,  you’re saying a 50 percent reduction in calories from meat, you mean, do you mean by that if we ate 50 percent less meat in the UK that would have that 80 percent reduction in emissions?

Helen: So that’s 50 percent reduction in calories from animal products, so not just meat but mainly coming from meat in the greenhouse gas impact share. And that’s coupled with restoring the land that would no longer be used for animal agriculture to its natural habitat which would obviously store carbon in forests and grasslands. 

Anthony: Before I move on to what we eat if we don’t eat meat, Kristie can I turn to you because I understand that The Humane Society focuses very much on meat reduction. Tell me a bit about the campaign that you’re working on at the moment.

Kristie: Right, well, thanks for asking about that, so I think that when people hear about The Humane Society they tend to think about how we’re helping cats and dogs and our organisation built in the US and in our sister organisation Humane Society International we do a lot of that through providing free and low cost spey/neuter services. We also work to help wildlife and end animal fighting, so we are involved in a lot of campaigns and programs. My organisation, or my team at the organisation, specifically works to help institutions with reducing the amount of meat they are serving and adding more plant-based options to their menus. And we do this because it’s an animal protection organisation we would be remiss if we weren’t addressing the area where the most animals that are used in our industrial food system are institutionally abused and that is in the meat industry, within the United States alone, nine and a half billion animals are factory farmed and the global total is, of course, billions more than that. And so we work to help end factory farming through getting schools, hospitals, colleges and universities and others to reduce the amount of meat they are serving. And, of course, as it turns out, what is good for animals and ending their suffering in factory farming, is also really good for our health, as well. So there’s a lot of research that indicates that eating less meat, eating more plant-based foods or even going completely to a plant-based diet can help with addressing a lot of our chronic preventable diseases like heart disease, cancer, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and even reducing the obesity epidemic. And then, of course, environmental sustainability and that includes biodiversity because the animal agribusiness has so much at stake in terms of what Helen mentioned decimating our Amazonian rainforest and other really precious natural landscapes and so we are destroying biodiversity when we plough down forests to create grain for our cattle and other animals. 

Anthony: Well, my question is, are you recommending that everyone should be vegetarian?

Kristie: The Humane Society’s perspective is we advocate for what we call the three R’s which is reducing, replacing and refining. So reducing the amount of animal products in your diet through something like a meatless Monday or identifying other ways that you can reduce, replacing those products with plant-based products, and refining your diet by choosing higher welfare sources if you do continue to eat meat, eggs and dairy. And, so, in my book Meatless, I go over all of the reasons that more and more people are eating less meat or are going vegetarian or vegan. I outline a lot of the common obstacles of diet change, and finally I help with providing simple tips and tricks as well as recipes and other resources for other people who are interested in getting started. So it doesn’t have to be 100 percent, any movement in that direction is a good start, but I know Helen probably has an opinion about that too, so I’d love to hear what she thinks. 

Anthony: Well indeed, actually I’m very interested to hear that because a lot of people say to me you’re into sustainability you’re into environmental protection, how can you be if you’re not a vegetarian, because I’m not a vegetarian. 

Helen: Yeah, you were asking does everybody need to be a vegetarian. So, there’s a couple of studies just to mention on that, so one looked at different types of diets, this one is by Bryngelsson et al from Chalmers University last year. They looked at different types of diets and how much greenhouse gasses result  - net greenhouse gasses - and for the vegan diet it’s actually net negative. And, like I was saying, that really frees up carbon budget for other areas where reductions are difficult to come by especially in the short term. So the nearer we get towards vegan definitely means that we have more of a carbon budget to play with. And, also, just to mention again the study from Cambridge researchers where they looked at a 50 percent reduction in animal products consumed in the UK and combined with restoring the land spared back to its natural habitat, so they were looking at 50 percent reduction combined with the land sparing and they came to the 80 percent reduction in UK emissions. So, again, that’s not saying 100 percent but it really depends what that land is used for afterwards. 

Anthony: A lot of people don’t know very much about the link between climate change and food, and maybe don’t want to know because a lot of environmentalists do say you’ve got to be a vegetarian if you’re serious. And what do you think about that Helen?

Helen: Yeah, well, if we look at the evidence - let’s focus on climate change. So a publication last year from the University of Oxford, for example, found that a fully vegan diet applied at the global level would reduce food related greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent. Now, this is really significant because the more we reduce food related greenhouse gasses means that we are freeing up carbon budget for other areas that are more difficult or may take longer to achieve reduction such as the energy sector, for example. So really key things to consider there are the potentials of the low hanging fruit that food related greenhouse gas reductions represent should really be taken seriously as climate change mitigation policy. 

Anthony: Yes, but as you said, there are other ways of doing it and we aren’t going to persuade everybody to be vegan and we’re certainly not going to persuade everybody to be vegetarian. So this is one part towards reducing the global carbon footprint. What other things should people be doing? 

Kristie: Well I’ll dive in and share that what we’re seeing really is a move toward reduction in the United States there’s a publication called Meatingplace, so it’s a trade publication for the meat industry and they conducted their own research last year and published their findings and one of the things they found was that 70 percent of meat eaters are saying that they are eating a non-meat protein at least one meal once a week and that figure’s up 22 percent from just a year ago. So I think while we may not see people shifting from vegetarian to vegan, certainly not overnight, people are definitely interested and I think more than ever before in eating less meat and that will certainly have an impact, and in the UK it could be through a Meat-free Monday and in the US we have a Meatless Monday program and the idea behind that is to take a holiday from meat just one day of the week to get started. There’s also the idea of being a flexitarian which is a mostly plant-based diet and eating meat or dairy every once in a while, or doing something like eating vegan before 6 p.m., so many more people are interested in doing this and the food industry is responding, such as Veggie Pret in the UK, which was just a pop-up restaurant and now it’s so popular and they’re talking about making it a permanent fixture. In the US, of course, we are seeing even fast food chains like Burger King, the king of burgers, now has a veggie burger on its menu and now you can get it at every location across the country. So I do feel like people are better understanding the reasons and the impact that their diet choices can have not only on their health and animals but on the environment, and they’re interested in making changes and sometimes they’re not really sure where to get started, and those are just a few reasons that make you do so. 

Anthony: Let me follow up on a couple of points. First of all I show my ignorance, could you give an example of a non-meat protein? 

Kristie: Sure, I think beans are probably one of the easiest and most widely available, and, in addition to that, it’s very inexpensive. So beans are a great source of protein and they’re also full of fibre and vita-chemicals so they’re both cancer fighting chemicals, as well, and they’re available pretty much anywhere in a can. You can get them canned, you can get them dry, and you can create them in all kinds of amazing recipes. Pretty much every culture around the world has their own variety of beans that they love and it’s a great way of getting a really clean protein. 
Anthony: Right and they’re quite a lot cheaper than meat. 

Kristie: Absolutely! Just yesterday I was in the supermarket and they’re roughly $1.19 to $1.99 for a pound of beans and meat prices were anywhere from $4.99 to $9.99 a pound. So they’re quite a bit cheaper. And the other hidden cost if you’re purchasing meat is that we are, of course, causing the environmental devastation we’re talking about, in addition to the impacts of climate change, we’re talking about huge amounts of waste, animal waste that’s being created from pollution to the manure that is polluting the soil, all of those are the hidden costs. 

Anthony: Let me go back to the other point you made, you mentioned the pop-up restaurant in the UK, maybe you can send me a link to that so people can follow that up when they look on the blog, what was it called again?

Kristie: Oh, this is Pret-A-Manger, which you probably see all over London if you’re in London.

Anthony: Oh, I Pret-A-Manger, I didn’t hear it clearly. Oh yes, I’ve heard of that. 

Kristie: And then they have Veggie Pret, so it’s just a vegetarian version of the chain. 

Anthony: Veggie Pret. No, I have not heard of that. 

Kristie: And London just got its first ever vegan fried chicken restaurant earlier this year, so I don’t know if that’s really considered to be healthy but there are definitely more and more options that are becoming available. 

Anthony: How can you get vegan fried chicken? 
Kristie: I don’t know the answer to that but I’m interested in finding out.

Anthony: Right. Helen, you’ve been involved, I believe, in calculating the carbon savings and institutions are making though menu options.  Tell me a bit more about that.

Helen:  Yeah, sure, so basically I’m using published scientific data on the greenhouse gas footprints of different foods to measure the impact of changes made to food purchasing and obviously through menus, so for example, if an institute reduced beef purchases by 50 percent and replaced that with beans then I would be able to measure the greenhouse gas impact change and I will be assessing those emissions periodically so before any menu changes have taken place and after any menu changes have taken place and at several points in time after that, as well. And this is a really great opportunity for institutes to assess their food related greenhouse gas emissions and it comes at a time when they’re actively seeking to do that and are being required to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions across campus. 

Anthony: Right, so you talk about academic institutions and hospitals perhaps are there other public sector organisations? 

Helen: Yeah, so right now we are just focused on universities but definitely will be included in those other types of institutions, too. 

Anthony: I think you’ve also been involved, Kristie, in working with institutions on reducing their carbon footprint.

Kristie: Right, so institutions are purchasing a lot of food, from schools to hospitals to universities even the military and correctional facilities -- all of these institutions are looking at ways to offer more helpful and more sustainable options to their guests and one intervention that we’ve offered is through plant-based culinary instruction and we’ve now trained several thousand chefs to create delicious, filling, nutritious and plant-based options for their menus. And I’ll share just a couple of examples of some of the things institutions are doing here. One of those is a case study from University of North Texas, which is just about 30 minutes or so north of Dallas. So if you know anything about the geography there, it’s not really a hot bed of animal activism. It’s really in the heart of cattle country. And they’ve been receiving all kinds of requests from students for a vegan option and so they took one of their five dining halls and made it totally vegan, and it turned out to be a massive success generating all kinds of free publicity for the university and increasing student satisfaction. It went from serving about 100- 175 meals a day to 700 to over 1000 meals per day, and also helped with increasing sales of their dining plan. It was a massive success and they were able to reduce their carbon footprint. Another example is UC Berkeley, they’re part of this program called Menus of Change which is put together by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America, which is the premier culinary institute here. They’re really trying to find ways to help Americans eat less saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and other things, just so there are healthier more sustainable menus. So, as a result of that, UC Berkeley created a concept restaurant on its campus which they called Brown’s, which is a sustainable cafĂ©. Where they’re really trying to focus more on plant-based foods, and they created a dish they call the flipped plate and they can get it either totally plant based or you can get it with some meat, but the concept behind flipping the plate is looking at it through the lens of making vegetables the real centre of the plate, and if you do opt to have some meat or animal protein then making that a very small portion. So you’re going from the way we would usually look at the typical plate having meat really as the centre, now vegetables are at the centre of the plate and meat is the side if it’s on the plate at all. So there are really interesting interventions at institutions that are going about approaching this and there’s not really a one-size-fits-all but I think it’s really important for everyone to start thinking of ways that they can do their part. 

Anthony: Yes, it sounds that you have got really interesting initiatives there, and if we are going to make a significance difference, though, I can’t see anybody or any politicians or any governments actually trying to restrict the operations of the agriculture sector. On the other hand, if consumers aren’t buying the product then that actually will reduce the production of meat and so on but consumers won’t stop buying meat unless they are confident and informed about what the alternatives are. So how are we going to address that?

Kristie: Yeah, I think that is a really wonderful point and I think that consumers are increasingly interested in finding out more about the alternatives and I think that’s why we can see the US market really responding. So, one example is the dairy industry, which is a notorious methane emitter and now there are all kinds of plant based dairies from almond to soy milk, which are now pretty ubiquitous to exotic milks that are coming out all the time like cashew cream or hazelnut cream. Ben and Jerry’s which is a subsidiary of Unilever, one of the world’s biggest food companies, came out with six new flavours of it delicious ice cream and it happens to be totally plant-based, totally vegan. And then Breyers, another chain company, came out with a couple of flavours and it’s a much less a premium brand.  So they definitely see that there is consumer interest and I think that as there are more products out there that are still delicious that still have the same flavour profiles that we are used to eating, that people will start trying these products and the market will respond, as well. 

Anthony: That’s very interesting; as we draw this to a close I would like to ask each of you in turn. Helen, first of all, what one thing should people who listen to this do tomorrow to make a difference in order to reduce their carbon footprint, how can they do that in terms of what they eat?

Helen: Yeah, so the easiest thing really is if you’re going to start tomorrow is to find some recipes and really experiment. Find things you really like, so find some vegan recipes to replace your favourite meat and dairy dishes. Another thing really good to do is to look at substitutions, so like Kristie mentioned, the vegan fried chicken. So if there is any kind of particular thing that somebody loves just look for the plant-based alternative and that’s a great way to reduce your impact. 

Anthony: Right, the thing is, of course, that more and more people are living to a very large extent takeaways and ready meals. I don’t see, maybe because I don’t look for them, but I don’t see vegetarian or vegan ready meals on the shelves. Kristie, am I wrong on that, are they available? 

Kristie: There are quite a few brands. So I know Linda McCartney’s got a wonderful brand of frozen meals that you can heat up at home, and certainly we have loads of them here, and I really think that it’s just identifying items like that. So, our food is so deeply embedded in our culture and our daily routines so it’s just a matter of tweaking our habits and that’s one of the things that I talk about in my book, is just finding an option that works for you. As Helen just mentioned, look at what you’re already eating and find something that’s a simple substitute or a simple trade off. And another real critical element of this is building community because the way that we eat is so heavily influenced by our friends and family. Walter Willett at the Harvard School of Public Health talked about how obesity is contagious, if our close friend is obese, we are 57 percent more likely to be obese, but health is also contagious, too, so why don’t we encourage our friends and family to join us on a journey, because not only will be we more inclined to succeed but our impact will be multiplied.

Anthony: Well, that’s very encouraging. And have you got one thing that people should do tomorrow, starting tomorrow?

Kristie: Well given it’s Thursday, I would say, probably a meatless Thursday, you really can do it any day of the week but I think it’s to start something and really to have a concrete plan in mind. Don’t just think I’m going to try to eat less meat say  I’m gonna do it at least one day a week or at least one meal a day I’m going to eat meatless, and I think you’re more likely to be successful. 

Anthony: I’d like to thank you both very much for an interesting discussion and wish you both success in the campaign. 

Kristie: Thank you so much, and happy meatless Thursday (or it’s Wednesday today.) 
Helen: Thank you, Anthony.

And thank you to Kristie Middleton and Helen Harwatt, speaking on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States. Thank you also to their colleague Elizabeth Walker who produced this transcript of the interview.

Here are some links to resources which they asked me to pass on. Helen says: “For the food replacements that Kristie and I both mentioned, in the UK the best ones are made by Fry's and are available in some of the major supermarkets and most health stores, including Holland and Barrett. Here's their website with product and supplier information: Also, Sainsbury's have just launched a great range of vegan cheeses. For anyone really wanting to dive in for a challenge, there's a 30 day supported vegan challenge from a UK charity - here's the link:"

And Kristie adds: “Here’s a link to where your listeners can find MeatLess:  

And here’s a source on animal agriculture’s impact on biodiversity: 
Machovina et al., 2015. Biodiversity conservation: The key is reducing meat consumption. Science of The Total Environment."

More resources from Helen:

Gerber et al., 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock - A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Bryngelsson et al., 2016. How can the EU climate targets be met? A combined analysis
of technological and demand-side changes in food and agriculture. 

Lamb et al., 2016. The potential for land sparing to offset greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

Springmann et al., 2016. Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change.

de Ruiter et al., 2017. Total global agricultural land footprint associated with UK food supply 1986 - 2011.

Also, here are two studies around public awareness of food and climate change (I didn't get to mention them but might be of interest to readers/listeners):

A large scale international consumer survey reported by Chatham House:
Wellesley et al., 2015. Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption.

A recent survey of UK consumers commissioned by the Global Food Security programme:

And that’s all for another week. Next week I’m talking about Business Ethics and Sustainability and I’m launching a Patreon page. If you don’t know what that is go across to I’ll see you over there shortly.

This is Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.

Have a great week!