Eat less meat this Earth Day. These vegetarian recipes can help : Life Kit Meat production takes a heavy toll on the environment. Here's how to dial back your meat intake and make a big impact.

Reduce your carbon footprint by eating less meat. Here are 2 recipes to get started

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MARIA GODOY, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Maria Godoy. In this episode, how to eat less meat so you can help the environment and your diet. If that feels like a big ask, you can actually start pretty small. We're going to start with a yes or no question. Do you need to cut out all the meat in your diet to make an environmental impact?

RICHARD WAITE: No, you don't.

GODOY: That's Rich Waite. He's a senior research associate in the food program at the World Resources Institute. He's going to walk us through the environmental impact of meat production and consumption. And seriously, you don't have to become vegan or vegetarian to make an impact. Even Rich, who knows all the research, says he still eats meat.

WAITE: I am an omnivore. I eat pretty much everything.

GODOY: But when thinking about meat consumption, Rich says, we want to cut back on the most resource-intensive meats. Those are the animals that take the most land to grow and feed, which means beef and lamb. So while we're not telling you to cut out meat altogether, we are going to help you rethink your relationship to meat. Think abundance, not lack.

TRACYE MCQUIRTER: And so I always tell people to think about what you're gaining.

GODOY: That's Tracye McQuirter, public health nutritionist and author. So once Rich gives us all the environmental facts, Tracye is going to help us actually put all that information into action with tips for eating a more plant-based diet.

MCQUIRTER: That's really a mindset shift, I think, for people to think about, you know, what they're gaining rather than what they're missing out on.

GODOY: And if you're feeling discouraged or unsure if your personal consumption can really make an impact, remember this.

WAITE: Well, it all adds up 'cause there's, you know, almost 8 billion people on the planet today, and there's going to probably be about 10 billion of us on the planet by 2050.

GODOY: So you can do your part.

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GODOY: When we talk about the environmental impact of meat production, why is it that it does have such a big environmental footprint? How much is beef production a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions?

WAITE: Well, the food system as a whole, when you're looking at agriculture and deforestation, contributes about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and animal agriculture contributes about 14.5%. And within that, beef production is about 40% of those animal agricultural emissions, so it's about 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

GODOY: Just beef - we're just talking about cattle, right?

WAITE: Correct.

GODOY: And why is it that producing meat has such a big footprint on the environment?

WAITE: So beef production causes greenhouse gas emissions in a few ways. Cows and other ruminant animals emit methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, as they digest grasses and plants.

GODOY: These are the cow burps.

WAITE: That's right. These are the cow burps - technically called enteric fermentation, which the cow burps. And there's also methane that gets emitted from manure and also nitrous oxide, which is another powerful greenhouse gas. And then also, rising beef production and consumption also requires increasing quantities of land, and so as the global population grows and people consume more meat, more trees are cut down for pasture, land and for growing crops. And that releases carbon dioxide, which is stored in the forests.

GODOY: OK, so it's both the cows themselves burping out methane and also the land needed to raise them being deforested, which adds to greenhouse gas emissions.

WAITE: Correct.

GODOY: Got it. But when we talk about changing our diet to have an impact on this, you know, the question is, can little old me personally cutting back on meat make a dent in this problem? I mean, can my diet choices really make a difference?

WAITE: If you think about here in the U.S., we eat a relatively high amount of meat per person, and the average U.S. diet takes about two acres to grow all of the food that we eat per person. And about half of that is from beef production, and about - more than 80% of it is for all meat and dairy combined. So if you think about it, shifting to a diet that is - you know, has less meat and has more plants in it will reduce the amount of land that it takes to grow your diet. And if you add that up across millions or billions of people, it makes it easier to feed a growing population without knocking down more forests.

GODOY: How much would we have to cut out beef 'cause you said that beef is the prime offender, right?

WAITE: So just to give you a, you know, sense of this, we looked at some different scenarios, and we found that, for example, if people in the U.S. cut back their beef consumption by about half - so we eat about three burgers - burger equivalents - per person per week, and we looked at a scenario in which people cut back to about 1 1/2 burgers per person per week. If we did that here, it would actually make it possible to feed 10 billion people by 2050 without any further deforestation - again, because it reduces the amount of land that it takes to feed each person.

GODOY: So if you are cutting back on red meat, what are the best options for replacements from an environmental perspective? Let's say, is chicken just as good as fish, for instance?

RICH WAITE: As it goes, chicken and fish are both on the lower end of resource intensity in terms of animal protein production. You can be pretty flexible about it.

GODOY: I've had friends over the years who've gone vegetarian, and a lot of them tended to replace meat with dairy products. Does that approach actually help or, you know, do you really want to be replacing meat with plants?

WAITE: Well, that's interesting that you mention that because we found that as well. And so when we were modeling impacts of different diets, that's one of the things that came out, is if you look at what vegetarians actually eat, they tend to replace a certain amount of the meat that they're no longer eating with dairy products or with eggs. And, you know, again, dairy products are going to have higher greenhouse gas emissions than, you know, plant-based foods.

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WAITE: So if you do switch completely towards plants, you will have a greater impact, but we looked at the impact of the average U.S. diet versus a vegetarian version of the U.S. diet that includes some dairy and eggs. And the vegetarian diet took about half the amount of land and about half the greenhouse gas emissions as an average American diet.

GODOY: Got it. So you don't have to give up your dairy if you want to (laughter) - if you want to make an impact.

WAITE: That's right. And you don't - and again, you don't even have to give up beef. It's just about kind of shifting the proportion, the mix of what you're doing.

GODOY: OK, good to know because I still like cheeseburgers. I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

GODOY: When we are talking about beef specifically, are there certain techniques for raising the cattle that make it better for the environment than other techniques? Or, you know, is grass-fed beef better, for instance?

WAITE: So on grass-fed beef, it's actually tricky because finishing cattle on grass instead of finishing them on grain in feedlots, it leads to slower animal growth and the cattle tend to be slaughtered at a lower weight. And what then happens is that land use and greenhouse gas emissions per pound of grass-finished beef actually tend to be higher than that of conventional grain-finished beef.

Right now, it's still easier to shift what you're eating towards plants and also minimize your food waste as kind of surefire ways to reduce your diet's footprint. And, you know, hopefully one day, we'll be able to walk into the grocery store and see a bunch of carbon labeling in the beef section. You can pick out the most climate friendly cuts of meat, but we're not there yet.

GODOY: And what about buying local meat? Does that make an environmental impact?

WAITE: So I think, you know, a lot of people have an intuition that food miles are sort of a really important component of the climate impact associated with the food that we eat. And actually, especially when you're talking about meat, emissions from transport is actually very small, and it's a lot smaller than the emissions from producing the food.

So there was a study that was done a few years ago that estimated that production - it was, like, 83% of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the U.S. diet and transportation was only 11%. So, you know, eating local meat, it's going to be a less effective climate strategy than eating less meat and more plants.

GODOY: It can seem overwhelming when you're trying to cut back on meat. I'm wondering, are there examples in the past where we've actually overhauled our whole diet as a society? That's a big thing. And we're a big meat-eating country, right?

WAITE: Yeah, well, it's interesting. If you actually look back at the eating patterns in the U.S. back to the 1970s, we've actually already cut back on per-person beef consumption by about one-third. And Americans still eat about the same amount of meat overall as they did in the 1970s, but they shifted from beef toward chicken. And the interesting thing about that, too, is if you look back to the 1970s, overall beef production in the U.S. has held pretty steady because we've added another 120 million Americans to the population. If you're thinking about, you know, the global challenge, we're looking at something similar, right? We're going to be adding another two billion people to the human family.

You know, under business as usual, we could be looking at a lot more deforestation to, you know, clear the land to feed everybody. And if we think about the kinds of changes that we can make to eat a diet that has a lower footprint, we can - you know, we can sustainably feed more people.

GODOY: So we've done it before, basically (laughter).

WAITE: Exactly. Not unprecedented.

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GODOY: That's Rich Waite of the World Resources Institute.

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GODOY: Eating less red meat and more plants isn't just good for the environment. It's good for your health, too.

MCQUIRTER: It's really important to know that the food that you eat is the most important in determining your quality of life right now and your quality of life in the future.

GODOY: That's Tracye McQuirter, public health nutritionist and author, and she knows that diet matters.

MCQUIRTER: We know that eating more whole grains, more fresh fruits and vegetables and more plant-based proteins are the healthiest foods we can eat because they don't come with cholesterol and zero or very little saturated fat, which can clog your arteries and lead to cardiovascular disease. And heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the country. So we want to eat more plant-based foods or all plant-based foods. But definitely start out, wherever you are, by adding more plant-based foods to your plate and less meat.

GODOY: Right. And just so listeners know, we've actually included some of Tracye's plant-based recipes online at npr.org/lifekit.

So, Tracye, what are some impactful but smaller changes you can make to your diet if you want to start eating less meat?

MCQUIRTER: Well, I like to start by suggesting that people add, and so that means adding more plant-based proteins to your plate. So, for example, if you're making a stir-fry for dinner and you have colorful vegetables, you're having that over brown rice, for example, you can add in tofu. You can add in cashews. You can add in almonds. You can add in pecans as your protein. You can add in edamame as your protein instead of meat and still have a really delicious, healthy dish. And so I always tell people to start by adding to the familiar foods that they're already making.

GODOY: So one concern that's often raised, though, about eating more produce is price. Good produce can be expensive. How can we make this change of adding more fruits and vegetables into our life and cutting back on meat without breaking the bank?

MCQUIRTER: It's really, really not hard to eat healthy on a budget if you are eating whole foods. So, for example, getting beans or nuts from the bulk bin - they're much cheaper per pound than it would be to have that same dish, but you have to buy meat to put in it. You can buy frozen food, and frozen vegetables are just as nutritious. They're actually usually flash frozen, so the nutrients remain intact. So you can have frozen vegetables just as easily, and you can keep them in the freezer for months.

GODOY: What are some practical tips for cutting out meat in terms of meal prep or, you know, just things we should stock in our pantry?

MCQUIRTER: So I would definitely suggest stocking up on beans and add them to any dish that you're having. You can have them in tacos. You can have them in a wrap. You can have them on a salad. You can have them in a stir-fry. You can have them in a soup or a chili. So just think about beans in a different color. So if you're going to your supermarket, just kind of look in the bulk bin and just choose some colorful beans and always have those on hand. Try to have at least three colors on your plate, and, you know, don't be afraid to have more than one vegetable at a time to add to those colors.

GODOY: It takes a little planning to soak those dried beans, but you can also buy canned ones. Either way, it's actually a great source of protein and a staple at my house. But let's dig into that whole idea of colors. Why is it important to eat the rainbow when we're talking about fruits and vegetables?

MCQUIRTER: They each reflect specific nutrients and antioxidants, cancer-fighting agents in your food. So that's why you want to focus on the color, because it means more nutrients. Also, you want to have whole grains on hand. They're high in protein and also many, many other nutrients that are good for you - iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium. The way that you really know that you're getting the nutrients that you need on a plant-based diet is just by having variety. So don't focus on the day. Focus on the week, and just have a variety of grains and beans and fruits and vegetables and also just seasonings - your favorite seasoning. Seasonings are important for whatever type of foods that you're eating, whatever type of diet that you have, right? If you love Thai, if you love Ethiopian, if you love Caribbean, keep those spices on hand as well.

GODOY: What's the biggest challenge most people face when they're trying to cut down on the meat in their diet?

MCQUIRTER: I think the biggest challenge is thinking about, you know, like a plate. What is going to replace, you know, that meat? So think about making simple meals that you already are making and you're just swapping out the protein. You're swapping out an animal-based protein for a meat-based protein. So if you're making a pasta, if you're making a soup, even if you're making a fajita, a burrito, a wrap, you can use beans and nuts and tofu, edamame, mushrooms. So there's so many wonderful options.

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GODOY: That's author and nutritionist Tracye McQuirter. OK, let's recap. You don't have to cut out all the meat in your diet to make an environmental impact. From an environmental standpoint, not all meat is equal. Beef and lamb are the most resource-intensive meats, so if you're eating for the planet, try to cut back on those. You know, instead of a burger, sub in fish or eggplant. Think about what you can add to your plate rather than what you're taking off. Tracye recommends substituting meat with other sources of protein like beans, tofu and nuts. We've included some of her plant-based recipes online at npr.org/lifekit.

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one on how to exercise at home, and there's lots more episodes on personal finance, parenting and health. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit.

This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Meghan Keane is our managing producer. Clare Lombardo and Beck Harlan are our digital editors. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Maria Godoy. Thanks for listening. Ciao, bella (laughter). I'm tired. All right, hopefully that worked. Buh-bye (ph).

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