America’s agriculture sector offers a critical path to slowing climate change but public policy has yet to recognize this possibility. President BidenJoe BidenNew York woman arrested after allegedly spitting on Jewish children Former Sen. Donnelly confirmed as Vatican ambassador Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE’s Jan. 27 executive order on climate misses naming America’s meat-heavy diet as a major contributor to a changing climate.
Meat production fuels deforestation and accounts for at least 18 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (though it is likely this figure significantly understates the full impact of animal agriculture, which also includes lost carbon sequestration capacity of agricultural land). Without a clear strategy for altering America’s meat-centric food choices, the agricultural and forestry climate strategy required by late April — per the executive order — will inhibit the achievement of Biden’s climate goals.
A growing number of authorities are concerned about the climate impact of America’s food choices. Peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that a significant reduction in meat and dairy consumption would generate climate benefits by reducing methane emissions from cattle and manure, nitrous oxide emissions from animal feed production and deforestation for cattle pasture and animal feed cropland. In fact, failing to reduce meat consumption will make it impossible to meet the Paris Agreement goal of staying well below a 2 degrees Celsius global temperature rise.
America’s meat-heavy diet also contributes to a wide range of chronic diseases, skyrocketing healthcare costs and a population more vulnerable to the coronavirus. The data show that people have greatly increased risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 infection if they have preexisting medical conditions, largely the result of nutritionally preventable chronic diseases. It is this causal connection, along with socioeconomic factors, that explains the much higher rate of hospitalizations and fatalities from COVID-19 in our most vulnerable populations. Indeed, these communities, most of which are communities of color, have disproportionately suffered from chronic diseases, the COVID-19 pandemic and environmental degradation. To address the health, social, economic and environmental problems impacting underserved communities, it is important to bring nutrition science to bear on public policies that affect human health and the environment.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to help Americans understand better the consequences of their dietary options and encourage healthier and more sustainable food choices. Unfortunately, the Feb. 2 testimony of Tom VilsackTom VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE, Biden’s new Agriculture secretary, did not adequately address the outsized role of agriculture in the nation’s dual climate and health crises. At his confirmation hearing, Vilsack regrettably stated his priority to establish more processing plants so that America’s consumption of animal-based foods won’t be interrupted as it was during the pandemic. The American people and our planet would be much better served by the administration educating the public on nutrition science and offering incentives to farmers to voluntarily produce healthy, sustainable plant foods for human consumption. Reducing consumption of animal foods would have immediate and significant health and environmental benefits. Indeed, widespread adoption of a plant-based diet could cut food-related emissions by 70 percent. Moreover, the annual savings in health care costs from a healthier population will more than offset the costs of incentivizing farmers to grow more plants and fewer animals. In 2020, healthcare costs totaled $3.5 trillion, 85 percent of which was to manage diet-related chronic diseases.
At the same time that efforts get underway to reduce America’s voracious demand for animal food, farmers could be incentivized to reforest enormous swaths of land currently used for animal feed crop and grazing. Reforestation and regenerative agriculture would pull massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in biomass and the soil. And the land kept in food production could be used to grow food far more efficiently. Indeed, studies show that 1.5 acres of land can produce 375 pounds of beef or 37,000 pounds of plant food.
The Biden administration has stated their commitment to inform their decision-making by “listen(ing) to the science.” So why has nutrition and climate science been ignored both in the executive order and in Vilsack’s confirmation hearing remarks? Despite the incontrovertible evidence of the climate and health benefits of a broad population shift away from animal foods, Biden’s executive order offers no federal guidance or incentives to encourage farmers or the public to shift their diet away from animal foods.
The federal government must stop ignoring nutritional science, which primarily determines food choice, and start using its procurement, policy creation, educational, research and financial capacities to help Americans shift toward a plant-based diet. The Biden administration should: one, integrate nutrition science and food choices into the Administration’s agricultural and forestry climate strategy, climate action plans and government-wide approach to combat climate; two, lead a multi-agency stakeholder process that engages the medical and public health fields, world renowned nutrition researchers, environmental organizations and climate scientists, farmers, animal protection groups and leaders of communities of color most impacted by health disparities and inequitable access to healthy food, to establish federal policies and incentives that will accelerate a shift already underway toward more plant-based food and a healthier diet for all Americans; and three, advance a dialogue around nutrition, such as the Food, Nutrition and Health Conference advocated by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian. Not doing so runs the risk of derailing Biden’s climate change, public health, environment and justice goals.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, PhD, is the chief nutrition advisor to the nonprofit PlantPure Communities. He is a bio/nutritional researcher with over 60 years of experience in the field of nutritional science and the co-author of the New York Times bestselling book “The China Study.”