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Can Food Choices Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

A new study finds that substantial reductions in spending on red meat resulted in lower greenhouse gas emissions.
A butcher arranges meat products at a grocery December 29th, 2003, in New York City.

A new study finds that spending less on red meat leads to lower overall greenhouse gas emissions.

As more Americans seek to decrease their carbon footprint, red meat has become a popular target. Since January, New York City public schools have decided to go meatless on Mondays, a group of public-health and nutrition researchers has called for a red meat tax, and President Donald Trump has even accused Green New Deal supporters of trying to "permanently eliminate" cows.

Total cow elimination aside, there's evidence backing these efforts: Research shows that production of red meat takes up more land and fossil fuels than other foods. On top of that, red meat consumption has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer. With all the focus on individual decisions, however, the question often arises: How much impact can one person have?

In one of the first analyses using Americans' food-purchasing data, a new study published in Public Health Nutrition on Thursday found that "substantially lower red meat spending" resulted in lower overall greenhouse gas emissions, without adversely affecting purchases' nutritional quality or affordability. "This finding could be beneficial for [United States] consumers who have already been moving away from red meat over the last three decades," the researchers wrote.

Rebecca Boehm, an economist with the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, along with a team of researchers from Tufts University, examined weekly food purchases from 4,826 households from across the U.S. To quantify greenhouse gas emissions, they used a lifecycle analysis of red meat from the Environmental Protection Agency, which includes everything from tractors used to till the land, to the methane the cows produce.

Grouping the households by the share they spent on red meat, the researchers found a few patterns: Households that spent less of their budget on red meat were wealthier and more food-secure than others, and they racked up about 40 kilograms of carbon dioxide less than the other households each week. Meanwhile, those spending the biggest share on red meat tended to have lower incomes and less education; many of them were also participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. (Boehm says this might be because SNAP families often do their shopping in a cycle, buying foods that store longer in a freezer.)

There's plenty of evidence that socioeconomic status affects health outcomes, such as obesity and malnutrition. This disparity is due to a combination of social and environmental factors—difficulty accessing and affording healthier food options, a lack of adequate health education, and the ongoing trauma of food insecurity. There's also a simpler answer: "It could be that red meat happens to, in some places for certain populations, be cheaper per pound than other types of protein," Boehm says.

On this point, however, Boehm notes some limitations. The study only looks at purchasing data, not what Americans are actually eating. The findings do not account for the chance that a family or individual might be buying a lot of red meat one week, but not the next; others could be spending a lot on red meat, but buying only the expensive stuff (a nice cut; organic beef).

The study contains one surprising finding, which suggests that slight reductions to red meat purchasing are not enough. Households spending a moderate, but not low, amount of their grocery budget on red meat (quantified here as between 4 and 12 percent) did not see a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Boehm offers one possible explanation: Some consumers might be substituting dairy or poultry for red meat, which—as one 2012 study has shown—does little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the long run.

Some researchers have argued that change to the food system is more valuable than individual dietary choices—especially because some people don't get to make these choices at all. Boehm is very aware of this. "Even if we look at foods in isolation, that's not how people make decisions about what they eat," she says. "Shifting diets is a really important question, especially when it comes to sustainability, but there are so many factors that come into play when we think about what we eat: time, what we like to eat, habits, cultural preferences, things you grew up with, the food environment around you. Food choices are very complex."

Still, she believes that this and other studies can help inform nutrition and agriculture policies, such as carbon-cutting measures glossed over in the Green New Deal. For example, Boehm's latest findings bolster the case for including the sustainability of red meat in the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans; in the last round, politicians declined to include researchers' recommendations on sustainability under pressure from the meat industry.

As with the guidelines, these policies are often up against industry interests and political stalemates. And while consumers may not be able to control the environmental cost of their food, they can choose what to purchase. "As a consumer, your choices can filter up into policy and help to drive change," Boehm says. "That obviously is harder when the system has constrained you to make certain choices. That can only get us so far."