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More than 250 groups, scientists urge USDA to stop ignoring climate cost of meat and dairy

January 15, 2024

More than 250 climate, environment, health, nutrition and food organizations and experts are urging the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to address greenhouse gas emissions from meat and dairy consumption. The move comes after USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack claimed, at December’s COP28 climate conference, that he doesn’t hear much about reducing meat consumption as a climate solution.

In a letter sent to the agriculture secretary, signatories called on the USDA to immediately make meat and dairy reduction a key part of the agency’s climate strategy, align food and climate goals in all USDA programs, and integrate sustainability into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Despite Vilsack’s claim, the call to address consumption of high-emissions foods was prominently featured at COP28. The highly anticipated FAO Roadmap, from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, was released on the conference’s first-ever day dedicated to food and agriculture, which Vilsack attended. The USA even signed the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action, which includes a pledge to “work collaboratively and expeditiously” to shift toward consumption of lower emissions foods.

“Secretary Vilsack can’t keep his head in the sand anymore, because this letter delivers the message loud and clear,” commented Jennifer Molidor, a senior food campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We have to address our meat-heavy diets now, or the climate emergency will force us to.”

A diverse range of stakeholders – from youth-led organizations like Zero Hour and Genesis Butler’s Youth Climate Save to prominent journalist George Monbiot, author Matthew Prescott, and leading physician Dr Jay Shah, chief of medical staff at Stanford Health Care – signed the letter.

Food and agriculture make up one-third of global greenhouse gases, mostly from meat and dairy, but these resource-intensive foods only provide 18% of calories. Reducing consumption of high-emissions foods in wealthy nations has been identified by the IPCC, FAO, and numerous climate studies as an important strategy to address greenhouse gas emissions.

These high-emissions foods are also the leading driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss and a key source of water pollution. Meat production accelerates the spread of disease, posing a severe risk to public health, particularly in marginalized communities, and making it even harder for farmers to adapt to climate change.

Research shows that sustainable dietary shifts play a key role in fighting climate change in high-consuming nations like the USA. Changes to food production alone are not enough. Immediately cutting 90% of US beef consumption and replacing half our consumption of other meats with plant-based foods could save as much as two billion tons of greenhouse gases from being released by 2030.

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