When most people think about greenhouse gases, they usually imagine cars and factories burning fossil fuels for energy. And this makes sense; after all, fossil fuels used for industry, transportation, and electricity/heat contribute to over 50% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).   

However, this picture is limited; 14.5  percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions actually come from the agricultural sector,  according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Livestock are primarily responsible for this high percentage because according to a 2016 study by the World Resources Institute, animal-based foods account for roughly 90 percent of emissions from American agricultural land use (Raganathan et al 2016).

This is because we must clear land and cut down trees for livestock to consume. When we burn forests, fires emit carbon. Additionally, fewer trees limits the amount of carbon that plants can remove from the atmosphere through the process of respiration. Beef is an especially inefficient source of meat to consume because cows consume so many calories, yet only a small portion of these calories are converted into calories humans can take in. Ruminating animals, such as cows, often produce high amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere. 

Beef is one of the most inefficient sources of meat to consume because cows must consume a high quantity of calories in order to produce a much smaller quantity of calories that humans are able to consume. / Meat / Jason Rogers / Creative Commons

As a result, by raising cows for meat production, we are releasing high amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and gaining few caloric and nutritional benefits given these high effects on climate.  As the population continues to grow exponentially, the world is consuming more meat, accelerating this process even further.

So if meat production causes such a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions, why have efforts to reduce it been so limited thus far? Why aren’t we, as a planet, recognizing the ways in which we can change our diets to control our climate?

A study in Regional Environmental Change found that knowledge and skills determine behavior. Knowledge includes factual knowledge of issues and procedural knowledge of ways in which one could take action (Stoll-Kleemann 2016). It also found that education about “health concerns [are more influential] than environmental or animal concerns in motivating change in dietary behavior.” Social norms determining to what degree one’s peers believe one should follow a plant-based diet are highly predictive of one’s tendency to do so.

Livestock are large large contributors to climate change because they release high quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. / 20151110-RD-LSC-0271 / U.S. Department of Agriculture / Creative Commons

With this information in mind, my partner Meggie Stewart and I proposed the following research question: Does education regarding the effects of meat consumption on climate change or does promotion of new social norms have a larger effect in influencing individuals to change their diets? From these prior research studies, it is clear that meat consumption has a significant influence on climate and that both factors do indeed have an influence on public behavior. However, it is unclear which of the two factors is the most effective.

We posed this question because of its implications for allowing individuals to take action for climate change mitigation on a personal level. Climate change is a global issue in scope; this is why there are so many national policies and international discussions on how to cope with it. I, like many other people, often find it difficult to understand how individuals can take be influential in the mitigation process. However, decreasing meat consumption is one of those ways. Becoming vegan or vegetarian, or even just limiting the amount of meat, can help to lower the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, especially if many people make this change simultaneously. If we are aware of the best strategies for changing behavior, we may be able to more effectively and efficiently convince others to help mitigate climate change through these personal steps.

To answer our question, Meggie and I interviewed researchers who have conducted studies on the impacts of these strategies on public behavior change. After a thorough literature review to study necessary background information, we decided to contact authors of the various studies we had read to learn more. We interviewed three researchers,, and we compiled their thoughts into a podcast.

The researchers we interviewed all seemed to agree that education is critical to provide the background information necessary for the public to understand why they must change their behavior. However, changing social norms is the factor that will ultimately convince them to make the change.

If there is one main point to take home from our interviews, it is this: There are many strategies we can take to spark behavior change in others, but in order to be effective, we must use a combination of these strategies. It is clear that meat consumption does exacerbate global warming, and as such, we must take action to limit it as much as possible.

This can potentially be done through policies that limit the amount of meat production allowed or through policies that encourage behavior change, such as by requiring restaurants to list vegetarian dining options first on a menu. The issue is also human-induced, meaning that humans also have the power to stop it if we take appropriate action.

In the future, we can further explore the effectiveness of other methods for creating behavior change. For instance, economic factors such as taxes on animal products and subsidies for plant-based products also appeared in our literature review and may have significant influences on the public. Our decision to compare only two possible factors limited the scope of our research, but the consideration of other potential factors is critical to include in future studies.

What are some ways that you as an individual could influence the agricultural industry to have less of an effect on climate change? / Cow Portrait / Alex Proimos / Creative Commons

“Meat is tied to ideas about masculinity and class and this picturesque idea of the open pastoral landscape with cows grazing, and it’s so hard to disentangle those choices when we make our everyday dietary decisions,” Laestadius said. “What we eat is such an intimate thing, and no one wants to tell someone what they can or can’t eat because they might be met with a negative reaction.”  – Linnea Laestadius , researcher at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee 

Note: All interviewees have signed consent forms and are aware of how their responses are being used on my domain site.

Midterm Podcast Script

References

Boer, Joop de et al. “Help the Climate, Change Your Diet: A Cross-Sectional Study on How to Involve Consumers in a Transition to a Low-Carbon Society.” Appetite, Academic Press, 7 Dec. 2015.

Bryngelsson, David, et al. “How Do Dietary Choices Influence the Energy-System Cost of Stabilizing the Climate?.” Energies, vol. 10, no. 2, Feb. 2017, pp. 1-13.

“Climate Change and Culture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation.” USDA, Feb. 2013.

“Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 13 Apr. 2017.

Graham, Thomas, & Wokje, Abrahamse. “Communicating the Climate Impacts of Meat Consumption: The Effect of Values and Message Framing.” Global Environmental Change, Pergamon, 20 Apr. 2017.

Harwatt, Helen, et al. “Substituting Beans for Beef as a Contribution toward US Climate Change Targets.” Climatic Change, vol. 143, no. 1/2, July 2017, pp. 261-270.

Hyland, John J. et al. “The Role of Meat in Strategies to Achieve a Sustainable Diet Lower in Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Review.” Meat Science, Elsevier, 21 Apr. 2017. 

Laestadius, Linnea, et al. “Meat Consumption and Climate Change: The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations.” Climatic Change, vol. 120, no. 1/2, Sept. 2013, pp. 25-38.

McMichael, Anthony J. et al. “Food, Livestock Production, Energy, Climate Change, and Health.” The Lancet, 13 Sept. 2007.

Milman, Oliver, & Leavenworth, Stuart. “China’s Plan to Cut Meat Consumption by 50% Cheered by Climate Campaigners.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 June 2016.

Song, Guobao, et al. “Dietary Changes to Mitigate Climate Change and Benefit Public Health in China.” Science of the Total Environment, vol. 577, 15 Jan. 2017, pp. 289-298.

Stoll-Kleemann, Susanne, & Schmidt, Uta Johanna. “Reducing Meat Consumption in Developed and Transition Countries to Counter Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss: a Review of Influence Factors.” SpringerLink. 2016. 

Worland, Justin. “How a Vegetarian Diet Could Help Save the Planet.” Time, Time, 21 Mar. 2016.


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