Have you ever been to a supposedly sustainable non-profit event and got served meat? I have. I’ve been handed everything from from sizzling steaks to soggy-looking salmon as the guests and speakers deliberated the many challenges of our struggle against global warming. And every time it makes me wonder: How can it be that so many environmental non-profits pay so little attention — and spend so little money —towards promoting meatless diets?
The answer, to put it simply, is that even among people who understand the science, meat remains a strong taboo. (Jonathan Safran Foer makes this point in his forthcoming book We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast when speculating about why Al Gore left meat out of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power: ‘Almost certainly for fear that it would be distractingly controversial…’) And the science is strong. When in 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released its seminal report, ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow,’ it seemed that the connection between factory farmed animal protein consumption and global warming would become a top priority.
The report showed that the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Those kinds of numbers should make anyone focused solely on fossil fuels to pay attention. But so far, there has only been a little bit of movement.
This apparent lack of concern is made more frustrating by evidence that people do at least know that meat is a problem. In 2014, scientists from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a study of 34 environmental NGOs based in the U.S., Canada, and Sweden. The researchers conducted extensive interviews with staff members on the issue of meat consumption and climate change and noted that the majority of the people they talked to did view high levels of meat consumption as problematic.
Yet, most of the NGO staff admitted meat was not on their organization’s agenda, and certainly not a priority. ‘With a few notable exceptions, environmental NGOs in particular have encouraged only small changes to meat consumption and have only promoted those changes in minor ways rather than establishing dedicated campaigns on the issue,’ wrote the study’s authors.
The thing is, meat consumption is simply not like any other cause environmental non-profits may be working on. Talking about meat is like opening a Pandora-box. It’s complicated and controversial. Emotions will be involved. To get at the root of this problem, we need to take a look at our history. As Marta Zaraska explores in her book Meathooked, humanity’s love affair with meat goes back 2.5 million years to the days when our ancestors took their first bites of dead antelopes and zebras. And for almost as long, meat was more than sustenance for us — it was a symbol. Meat symbolized wealth, power and masculinity.
On the ancient savannas of Africa, food was often scarce and limited in nutrients. Protein was especially hard to come by. Meat was the perfect source of calories and protein — but also of many vitamins and minerals. It was what scientists call a ‘high-quality food.’ But it was also difficult to get, which made it all the more precious. Whoever had meat, had power — he (it usually was a ‘he’) could decide who would get the nicest shares of the hunted animal and who would go hungry.
Meat was also unusual because it came in big packages but spoiled quickly, making sharing both practical and communal. Soon meat became tightly connected with celebrations, feasts, and with the spirit of companionship.
Today of course we can pick up meat in various forms at the corner bodega, but telling people to cut down on their consumption goes against our feelings of community — not to mention the health benefits.
Food consumption in general, and meat consumption in particular, are so tightly connected to our identity; it’s extremely hard to ask people to change their habits. In the 2014 study, NGO staff frequently mentioned their concern about the public’s dislike for ‘being told what to eat.’ It’s true. Humans don’t like to be told what to do — or rather what not to do. ‘We don’t tell people to buy less fish. We don’t tell people to buy less paper… we don’t specifically tell people what to do I guess,’ admitted one Canadian environmental NGO staffer interviewed for the 2014 study. Employees are wary of being seen as preachy. It’s simply less risky to focus on campaigns which involve policy advocacy, research, or influencing corporate practices.
Yet the numbers are overwhelming: with livestock contributing as much to climate change as all the transportation on Earth combined, with every 1/3-pound burger requiring 660 gallons of water to produce, reducing meat consumption is an urgent matter.
Some of the leading environmental NGOs are finally beginning to take on the issue, from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to Natural Resources Defense Council and WildAid. And there are some tricks that might work if other organizations want to broach the topic without antagonizing their meat-loving members. First, as one recent Dutch study has revealed, simply showing people that meat-reducing diets can be a very effective way to mitigate global warming, without telling anyone to change anything, can increase their willingness to reconsider their eating habits.
Also, local and organic eating can be a ‘gateway drug’ into ‘reducetarianism‘ — another Dutch study found that when people increase their spending on organic food, decreased spending on meat tend to follow. And last but not least, foundations and donors can provide non-profits with grant opportunities and dedicated funding for campaigns aimed at curbing meat consumption. This could decrease some of the financial pressure on environmental non-profits worried about pleasing both their strategic partners and the meathooked public on one hand, and trying to implement the most efficient climate change campaigns on the other. They wouldn’t have to be stuck between a rock and a hard place any longer. Our planet would benefit for that.
Brian Kateman — Cofounder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of animal products.