Climate change is a prominent issue and existential crisis for an ever-increasing human population. It is difficult to address, even casually, without anxiety accompanying the conversation. As an individual, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such massive structural and cultural change required to respond to the challenges climate presents. However, there are many small actions one can take to make a positive impact in the name of sustainability and environmentalism. 

While voting for candidates who support climate initiatives and buying local and organic food products can make a difference, an environmentally responsible candidate may not always prevail, and not everyone can afford the luxury of local products. Eating less meat, on the other hand, can drastically reduce one’s carbon footprint while simultaneously benefiting one’s health.

No, I am not suggesting we all become vegetarians, but I am advocating for less meat in one’s diet. After all, a global shift to vegetarianism is not likely, and meat is tasty. Unfortunately, Americans consume 40 percent more meat, eggs and nuts compared to the recommendations made by the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines, according to the USDA. Conversely, vegetables and fruit are consumed at roughly half the amount recommended by the same dietary guidelines. To combat this trend, the USDA offers examples of how fruit and vegetable prescriptions could be met while keeping consumer expenses below three dollars per person per day. 

Again, I love a juicy cheeseburger just as much as the next person, but I can’t in good conscious eat meat at every meal considering the environmental implications of such a habit. Although it may not occur to you while looking for game-day brats or deciding between Wendy’s and Burger King, meat production of any kind involves leveraging existing cropland not to feed people, but to feed our food. Thus, choosing a beef patty versus a black bean burger, for example dramatically increases the environmental impact the energy required to produce and transport all this feed, according to the USDA. 

While cow farts are popular talking points in the political realm (and yes, these smelly contributions aren’t helping the climate either), there are serious resource concerns not being addressed in this conversation. What about the water required to grow feed, and the water provided to the livestock? What about the transport of feed to industrial farming enterprises? 

According to an analysis conducted by Harwatt, substituting beans for beef would help the U.S. achieve 75 percent of the Obama-era 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction target. Consequently, collective consumer action can dramatically and positively impact the environment. 

I have found reducing meat consumption has not negatively impacted my health or my hunger despite working out regularly. I try to eat meat only a few times a week at dinner, and while this is not a strict goal, I have reduced my meat intake simply by making an effort. I typically enjoy a breakfast such as yogurt and fruit to go meatless and include protein, and avocado toast is always a tasty, meatless option. Likewise, a summer salad with nuts, veggies, and cheese is also a healthy, filling lunch. If one insists on eating meat, avoiding beef is still a positive change to make. Often, restaurants will substitute chicken for beef at little cost if an itch for a burger arises. This being said, I fully endorse local meat products from the farmer’s market, as these systems have much lower environmental impacts.

While meat consumption is not the only habit one can alter to address climate change, it can be a small and somewhat infrequent choice with a large impact if made at a national or international level. There are, of course, a myriad of other reasons to eat less meat, such as personal health and deforestation (if you’re truly concerned about the Amazon). These can’t all be addressed succinctly and accurately in a single article, so I encourage more individual action — research the topic yourself.

National or international government organizations and environmental non-profits, like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), provide content on this issue. Climate reports, such as climate change reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are also avenues for self-motivated research.

Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren recently raised the point the fossil fuel industry wants us to focus on straws, vegetarianism and other individual actions to address climate change, so the industry itself can remain unchanged, profiting while degrading common-pool resources like clean air. Ultimately, climate change is a multifaceted problem demanding new sources of energy and modes of transportation, to name a couple of ingredients in the recipe for a sustainable society. Nonetheless, the significance of widespread, individual action can not be ignored. Global consumption has led humanity to the existential threat climate presents, and a collective, global response can begin a path toward climate mitigation for a sustainable future.

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