What's on Your Plate? Climate Change and Diet

  • A recent study found that beef cattle is the least climate-friendly type of livestock. Photo: J.S. Jordan

  • Leah Lizarondo is a blogger and food columnist who tries to make plant-based food more palatable to the masses. Photo: Kara Holsopple

December 12, 2014
First published August 29, 2014

Len Frenkel only has a minute to talk because he's rushing between presentations at the University of Pittsburgh’s Johnstown campus. The North American Vegetarian Society has their annual gathering here. Frenkel’s traveled from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He’s not just a vegetarian, he's vegan. That means he doesn’t eat meat or butter or anything made from animals. He started for animal welfare and health reasons. But now, climate change weighs heavily on Frenkel’s mind.

"Our personal health doesn’t mean squat with the future looking so terrible for life on the planet," he says.

Most people at this vegetarian festival are like Frenkel. They seem to want to go even further with their diets, often for environmental reasons. Take animal advocate Lee Hall, for example. She just graduated with an environmental law degree, with a focus on climate change.

Hall's at the festival from Philadelphia to give talks about diet and the environment. And she’s trying to start a movement.

"What the vegetarian and vegan communities have to offer is the idea of dietary divestment," she says.

It's just like environmental groups and religious organizations campaigning for banks and universities to dump investments in fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. Hall says people could stop investing in livestock agriculture, for example, which accounts for one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions.

One study found the diets of heavy meat eaters create about twice the greenhouse gas of vegetarians’. Another study points the finger at beef. Its author, Gidon Eshel says eating just about anything but beef would be an improvement.

"In the case of beef versus pork, we’re talking in land 50 times and in the case of greenhouse gases something like eight times," Eshel says.

Beef production is land and water intensive. Tilling and fertilizing soil for crops that feed cattle produce greenhouse gases, and cows themselves belch out the greenhouse gas methane.

But Eshel says, let’s face it, society isn’t going to become vegan en masse to deal with global warming.

Plant-based foods are gaining some ground, though. A company making an eggless mayonnaise made headlines when Bill Gates invested. In Pittsburgh, popular blogger Leah Lizarondo is working to make plant-based food more palatable in a meat-and-pierogies town.

On one weeknight in August, Lizarondo volunteers at a fundraising dinner. She wipes her brow as she lowers meatless, eggless, dairyless fritters into hot oil.

"Fried dough always wins. It’s the easiest path to conversion," Lizarondo says.

For another entree option at this dinner, someone sauteing pork. While Lizarondo’s fritters sizzle and pop, she explains one of the reasons she doesn’t use the term “vegan” when she connects diet to health and the environment.

"We have to meet people where they are," Lizarondo says. "And while 5 percent of us are vegan, there’s the 95 percent who aren’t. And I’m more interested in starting conversations to possibly influence the 95 percent towards a better way of eating."

Outside the kitchen in the restaurant's dining room, Tom Troung and his wife Meagan ordered both the pork and the vegan fritter to share. Troung says it doesn’t matter to him that one entree is vegan.

"If it tastes good, then it’s fine by me," Troung says.

So while many of us aren’t willing to skip the meat at a meal, some would say the fact that half the food on the plate is vegan is a win for the planet.

Photo of Lee Hall: Kara Holsopple