When it comes to the problem of climate disruption, I love solutions. I love them so much that several years ago I wrote a whole book about some of them. But like most of us, I sometimes need to step back and look at the bigger picture. And when I did that last week, I saw cows and pigs.
How’s that? Let’s get back the basic problem for a moment. Humans are putting too many greenhouse gases into our planet’s atmosphere, and degrading the soils and forests that can help moderate the effects of all that climate pollution. An obvious solution is to drastically reduce emissions, and the obvious place for the United States to start is with our single largest source of those emissions: fossil fuels.
But as I was reminded this week, the obvious solution isn’t necessarily the only solution. Case in point: last week, China’s Ministry of Health announced new nutritional guidelines recommending that its citizens eat more fish and chicken and less red meat. Although the average Chinese person already eats significantly less red meat than the average American, China as a nation is the world’s largest consumer of red meat. But what’s that got to do with climate disruption?
Contrast this with the United States, which initially proposed new dietary guidelines (supported by the Sierra Club) that called for reducing all meat in our diets. But when the meat and industrial food lobby saw the Obama administration’s recommendations, it ran to its friends in Congress, who had that section of the recommendations stricken.
It’s no secret that raising livestock is a resource-intensive activity that creates significant amounts of climate pollution, including methane. As a result, if the Chinese people do reduce their meat consumption by about 50 percent, as per their government’s new dietary guidelines, global climate emissions would also go down — by as much as 1.5 percent.
Now 1.5 percent might not sound like a lot, but when you’re dealing with a problem as urgent as climate disruption, everything counts. And that’s just China. What if people in the U.S. and other major meat-consuming nations were to find ways to move to diets that are better for the climate? It sure got me thinking.
The Sierra Club is helping to lead the way on clean-energy solutions, but let’s not forget that the problem we’re trying to solve isn’t just fossil fuels — it’s climate disruption. And to truly solve that problem, we’ll ultimately need to use every available and sustainable solution. Because agriculture, especially livestock, is such a significant part of this problem, how the world feeds itself will need to be part of any global climate solution.
Farmers, chefs, and many food advocates and other visionaries have been arguing this for years. I believe the Sierra Club should be helping to find that solution. Otherwise, as the saying goes, we’re just another part of the problem. We aren’t strangers to agricultural issues — we’ve worked on them for decades, particularly at the local level. But this demands something bigger. Globally, the connection between food and the climate is unavoidable, and the sooner we all rise to the challenge of tackling it, the better.