Appetite for Change: A Policy Guide to Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions of U.S. Diets by 2030

Executive Summary

Americans consume more meat than almost any other country, and our beef consumption is four times the global average.1 Those meat-heavy diets are threatening the planet. Food production is a major contributor to the climate crisis, including forests that are clearcut to make space for grazing livestock and feed crops, methane from burping cows, emissions created by farm equipment and fossil fuels burned to ship food around the world.

Globally as much as 29% of planet-warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from food production each year, and more than half of those come from meat and dairy. 2 The livestock sector alone accounts for 16.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, representing a significant burden on the climate from within the food system.3 Beyond the climate impacts, meat and dairy production, including grazing and agricultural lands producing cattle feed, take up an astounding 30% of the Earth’s surface and 80% of all agricultural land in the United States. 4, 5 This has an enormous effect on biodiversity, as well as on climate change and our ability to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined that we have fewer than 10 years to reduce global emissions by half to avoid the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change. To tackle this urgent need, we must align food policy with climate policy and drastically reduce the amount of meat and dairy produced. This is especially true for countries with high consumption, like the United States.

For this report scientists at the University of Michigan and Tulane University, supported by the Center for Biological Diversity, examined the projected climate impact of different dietary scenarios to 2030.

Key Finding: Cutting 90% of beef consumption and replacing 50% of other animal-based foods with plant-based foods in the United States would save more than 2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions from being released into our atmosphere by 2030 — the rough equivalent of taking nearly half the world’s cars off the roads for a year.6

Recommendation: U.S. policymakers at federal, state and municipal levels should take immediate steps to accelerate the reduction of beef consumption by 90% and reduce all other animal products by 50% as part of their efforts to address climate change. This policy guide serves to support these steps and outline a number of programs that can be undertaken at all levels of government, with key recommendations for decision-makers at municipal and federal levels. Among the specific recommendations are changes to government purchasing practices and nutrition education to support fewer animal-based products and more plant-based foods, as well as ending policies that distort market prices and favor carbon-intensive livestock production.


In its Special Report on Climate Change and Land released in 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that food systems are already being adversely affected by the frequency and intensity of extremes associated with climate disruption. Declining crop yields, unpredictable planting seasons, increases in agricultural pests and diseases, and worsening land degradation pose a threat to food security.7

+ Read more.


The Case for Food Policy as Climate Policy

Recent research overwhelmingly acknowledges the high greenhouse gas emissions-intensity of meat production relative to other foods and the opportunity for dietary shifts to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions.17 One study in the European Union, for example, revealed that halving the consumption of meat, dairy products and eggs would achieve a 40% reduction in nitrogen emissions, 25% to 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 23% less per capita use of cropland for food production.18 Policies that can advance these types of widespread dietary shifts are an important tool for reducing total greenhouse gas emissions.

+ Read more.


New Study: Implications of Future US Diet Scenarios on GHGs

New research by experts from the Center for Sustainable Systems at University of Michigan and Tulane University examines four hypothetical U.S. dietary patterns to determine how a reduction in the consumption of animal-based foods and a replacement with plant-based foods could affect diet-related greenhouse gas emissions on a per capita and cumulative basis. The scenarios were projected to 2030 and included population growth to estimate the climate impacts associated with different potential courses of action. 

+ Read more.


Recommendation: Policymakers Must Address Food-related GHGs

As the researchers note in Implications of Future U.S. Diet Scenarios on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, dietary changes can result in dramatic greenhouse gas reductions, but it “will require the concerted efforts of policymakers, the food industry and consumers.”

+ Read more.


The Role of Dietary Guidelines in Climate Food Policy

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans form the basis of federal nutrition policy and programs, including providing a framework for health and nutrition education at the local and national level. This directly affects billions of meals served each year in schools, government cafeterias, military bases, prisons, healthcare institutions and through social service programs such as Meals on Wheels. The dietary guidelines determine the health and sustainability of meals served to our most vulnerable citizens as well as influencing food availability, social norms, and nutrition education for the public at large.35

+ Read more.


Federal Policy Recommendations

1) Incorporate sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans should acknowledge the connection between diets high in animal-based foods and threats to the climate, environment and food security. These government-issued recommendations should emphasize plant-based foods (including protein), and call for limiting meat and dairy consumption, particularly red meat.

+ Read more.

State Policy Recommendations

1) Create a statewide, cross-agency food policy council with clear sustainability goals

State governments are responsible for meeting the demands of federal policies and guiding local policies while managing a variety of state-level food programs and challenges. By working across agencies such as public health, environment and agriculture, a food policy council can ensure that initiatives remain aligned with state health and sustainability goals and that the actions of one department don’t counteract measures being taken in another. Agencies can also use their shared expertise to craft public education campaigns to raise awareness of the climate impact of dietary choices and inform the public about health and other co-benefits of plant-centered diets. Beyond agency staff, the council should include diverse stakeholders to develop innovative ideas, earn broad community support and ensure that those most affected by the food system have a voice at the table.

+ Read more.


Municipal Policy Recommendations

1) Adopt procurement policies that reduce meat and dairy purchases

Cities have the power to determine how government funds are spent on food in their jurisdictions. These policies can directly affect local markets as well as provide guidance for food service throughout the city and serve as a model for institutional procurement policies. Procurement policies should include specific targets to reduce purchases of animal-based foods by 50%, with a steeper reduction for beef, and to increase purchases of plant-based foods. In addition to greater reductions in diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, limiting red and processed meats also offers health benefits.71

+ Read more.



The difference in cumulative emissions between the scenarios explored in Implications of Future U.S. Diet Scenarios on Greenhouse Gas Emissions demonstrates how policy decisions made today can affect our ability to achieve the necessary emission reductions by 2030.

If meat and dairy consumption continue to rise in the United States, diet-related emissions will push us further away, each year, from the reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

+ Read more.



+ Appendix A


+ References

Banner photo of root vegetables by Wendy Wei/Pexels