Jennifer M.: As you recently told Politico, the FAO roadmap fails to reflect the urgency of the need to scale back animal agriculture in order to meet Paris Agreement climate targets. How so?
Stephanie F.: This roadmap is a big deal because food systems were ignored in climate conversations for a long time. But even though the roadmap recommends reducing consumption of high-emissions foods, the FAO managed to dance around naming meat and dairy as the main culprits. It gives the sector that’s responsible for so much devastation to our climate, land, water, air and biodiversity a pass to lean on false solutions as it keeps increasing production. Unless we address the excessive consumption of meat and dairy in wealthy countries, this roadmap is a dead end.
JM: U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters at COP28 — the global climate conference — that he’s not hearing about reducing meat consumption. How is that possible?
SF: I’m not sure how he didn’t hear about it, since it was on the conference menu and agenda. In fact, this year COP had an entire day dedicated to discussing the relationship between food, agriculture and climate change for the first time. The United States also signed a major declaration alongside 150 other countries that highlights decreasing consumption of high-emissions foods – which means meat and dairy – as a climate strategy. Secretary Vilsack is choosing not to listen to the science at the expense of our future. It didn’t help that the meat industry tripled its presence at COP28 compared to previous years and worked hard to drown out the calls for meat reduction.
JM: Can you explain why it’s necessary to tackle meat consumption and not just production?
SF: When it comes to food systems, demand is an important part of determining what makes it from farm to fork. Unless we change what we consume, the agriculture industry won’t change what it produces. Just look at how McDonald’s plans to open 9,000 new stores even though the company is responsible for more emissions than entire countries. There’s no sustainable way to produce the sheer amount of meat and dairy people eat, especially in the United States, where people eat many times more meat and dairy than most of the rest of the world. So we need to deal with the consumption side of the equation. And that’s not just about individual choices — policies play a big role in what foods are available, accessible and affordable. That’s why we continue to urge public agencies and environmentalists to care about what’s on our plates.
JM: As you know, the Center — and more than 250 climate scientists, health experts and environmental organizations — just sent a letter to the USDA urging federal policy to address what we eat and not just how we grow it. What else has the Center been working on to enact change at the USDA?
SF: As I mentioned recently in The Hill, one of the challenges in setting meaningful climate policy goals for food and agriculture is sifting through greenwashed solutions. It seems like the USDA is throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at the biggest polluters and calling it a climate solution. We submitted several Freedom of Information Act requests on the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, where there’s no transparency on how funding decisions were made or how the effectiveness of partnerships will be tracked and enforced. But as we saw by the attention paid to food systems at COP28, even the most resistant policymakers can no longer ignore the need to address agricultural emissions. We’re going to keep pushing for change at USDA.
JM: What climate policies would you like the USDA to take on?
SF: Secretary Vilsack needs to admit that America’s meat consumption is a climate threat and include meat and dairy reduction in USDA’s climate strategy. The agency needs to integrate sustainability into the national dietary guidelines, which are currently being updated. The United States is far behind many other countries in its failure to do this. We’d also like to see a shift in USDA programs like school meals toward healthier, plant-based options. Not everyone has equal or fair access to healthy, sustainable food, and that’s a problem for achieving climate justice in our food system. To get there, we need to make sure Secretary Vilsack and the USDA listen to the science and prioritize our future over the bottom line of the meat industry.
How You Can Help
Urge the USDA to support real solutions to our climate crisis.
As always, write to me with questions or comments at EarthFriendlyDiet@biologicaldiversity.org.
For the wild,