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You don’t have to be vegan to help save the planet

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Dietician Dawn Blatner struggled for years with being a vegetarian, suffering the occasional craving for a hot dog at a baseball game or some turkey at Thanksgiving. “I always thought I was just a lazy vegetarian,” she says. “Then I saw the word ‘flexitarian.’”

That was in 2003; Blatner has described herself as a flexitarian ever since. “The idea of waking in the morning with the intention to eat more plants is what a flexitarian is about,” she says. But crucially, there’s “no cutting out food groups.”

Eating plant-based foods most of the time — the central pillar of the flexitarian diet — is an idea that’s come in, out, and back in again over the years. You can easily find a wealth of cookbooks, blogs, recipes and scientific studies devoted to the subject. But while plant-based diets have always offered dramatic health benefits, such as lowered risk of heart disease and diabetes, they are also increasingly recognized as one of the best ways individuals can take action to combat the worsening climate crisis. And unlike calls to centralize personal climate action around sacrifice — no meat, no driving, no flying, no plastic — the flexitarian approach stands apart for being, well, flexible. People can try it without ditching their favorite foods.

There’s no strict definition for “flexitarian,” and even its origins are a bit hazy. (Some parts of the internet mistakenly attribute it to Blatner herself.) Since the American Dialect Society named “flexitarian” one of their words of the year in 2003, this style of eating has become increasingly popular. It’s also far from alone in centering consumption questions around animal- versus plant-based foods. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Veganism: An entirely plants-based diet with no meat, dairy or other animal products.
  • Vegetarianism: A mostly plants-based diet with dairy and eggs but no meat consumption.
  • Pescatarian: Plants, dairy and eggs, fish and other seafood are consumed, but no meat.
  • Climatarian: Choosing foods based on lowering your carbon footprint, mainly by avoiding beef and lamb.
  • Reducetarian: Reducing meat consumption, period, in whatever shape or form you choose.
  • Flexitarian: A primarily plants-based diet, though no food is off limits. Also called a part-time vegetarian diet.

There are glaring gaps between what all these diets recommend and what people actually eat, particularly in the US. According to 2020 data, Americans consumed about 24 kilograms of pork (53 pounds), 26 kilograms of beef (57 pounds), and 51 kilograms of chicken (112 pounds) per capita. That compares with US dietary guidelines of up to 26 ounces of meat, poultry, and eggs per week — roughly 85 pounds a year of all three combined — and up to 8 ounces of fish.

Meanwhile, research keeps piling up in favor of moderating meat and dairy intake. A whole-foods, plant-based diet has been shown to “lower the risk of chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, and certain cancers, like colon cancer and prostate cancer,” says Dana Hunnes, a dietician and climate researcher at the University of California Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health. If you already have diabetes or heart disease, this type of diet can potentially reverse it “because it’s healthier, it’s full of fiber, it’s full of vitamins and minerals and it’s anti-inflammatory,” she says.

Then there’s the planet. The food system is responsible for roughly a third of global emissions annually, more than steel-making, aviation and shipping combined. This estimate factors in the whole life cycle of growing and producing food, including its transport around the globe. Raising and feeding copious amounts of livestock is the biggest contributor to that carbon footprint, and beef is the single most climate-intensive food. When cows burp, they release methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and raising cows requires abundant land for the animals themselves and the food they eat. A large portion of that land comes from forests, meaning natural carbon sinks are getting wiped out to develop pasture and farmland that aren’t as effective at soaking carbon out of the air. Roughly 45 million hectares of land globally were deforested to raise cattle between 2001 to 2015, according to the World Resources Institute, with Brazil’s Amazon forest being among the worst impacted.

Next on the list of carbon-intensive foods, there’s lamb and mutton, followed by pork and poultry, says Stephanie Roe, lead climate and energy scientist at the World Wildlife Fund. Dairy also has a relatively high footprint, although less than beef “because you are getting more calories per unit than you would with beef,” Roe says. “Then it kind of goes down until you reach the legumes, which probably have the lowest.” Beef’s climate footprint is almost 100 times greater than that of plant-based protein sources like beans and legumes, says climate researcher Marco Springmann of the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, making shifting diets one of the most efficient ways to cut emissions fast.

Brian Kateman, who co-founded the Reducetarian Foundation in 2015 to advocate for cutting back on meat-eating for environmental reasons, points out that eating meat also comes with sizable water consumption. One 6-oz. serving of beef has a staggering water footprint of 674 gallons, according to the Water Footprint Network, compared with 34 gallons for a cup of coffee and 21 gallons for a single serving of salad consisting of lettuce, cucumbers and a tomato.

The world’s leading body on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recommends shifting diets as a climate solution in its latest report published in April 2022. “Where appropriate, a shift to diets with a higher share of plant protein, moderate intake of animal-sourced foods and reduced intake of saturated fats could lead to substantial decreases in [greenhouse gas] emissions,” the report notes. Scientists also reported “high confidence” in the fact that shifting diets has the potential to cut emissions by 0.7 to 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year. That’s a big range, though. According to Roe, the more plausible range of climate savings from diet shifts is between 1.7 to 2.5 gigatons of CO2 equivalent annually, similar to wiping out half of the US climate footprint every year.

The clear takeaway is that when it comes to tackling the climate pollution from eating, individual action matters. “If everyone makes some sort of effort, it adds up,” says Hunnes.

Despite all this evidence, climate scientists have long been reluctant to recommend changes to what we eat because it can be such a hot-button topic. “Conversations around diet shifts are inflammatory in certain parts of the world,” says Roe. “Scientists have realized that.”

Take the US. When calls to pass a Green New Deal in Congress reached a fever pitch in early 2019, Republicans attacked it by in part falsely claiming that Democrats and climate activists wanted to effectively ban meat. Now practically any climate proposal draws the same criticism. When President Joe Biden announced his goal of cutting US emissions by at least 50% by 2030 in April 2021, for example, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene referred to him as “The Hamburglar.”

It doesn’t help that foods high in fat, sugar and salt can be more appealing when people are under stress (emotional eating, anyone?) But here, too, flexitarianism has an answer. Some research shows that gradual or “small changes” to diets can better lead to losing and managing weight over more abrupt, drastic changes.

That’s why Hunnes, who is basically a vegan, describes her diet as “plant-based” instead. Using less rigid language “encourages people to dabble more in this climate- and health-friendly diet without necessarily having to go all in.” It’s also why Blatner’s advice to anyone looking to eat more plants is simple: “Try a new vegetarian recipe a week.” Then you’ll have tried some 50 new things by the year’s end. “You become more plant-based in an easy flow as opposed to being all vegetarian all the time,” she says.

Kateman at the Reducetarian Foundation explains it perhaps most simply of all: “Meat consumption is not an all-or-nothing premise,” he says. “You don’t have to go vegan or vegetarian to make a contribution to alleviating the climate crisis.”

© 2022 Bloomberg

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