Americans are open to plant-based diets — but they don’t
know where to start.
That’s according to a new report, “Climate Change and the
American Diet,” published this morning by Earth Day Network and the Yale
Program on Climate Change Communication.
The report, which surveyed 1,043 American adults, found
that more than half of Americans are open to eating more plant-based foods, but
they don’t know what to buy. Additionally, that same number said they’d eat
more plant-based foods if they better understood their meals’ environmental impacts.
“We have a huge opportunity
here to educate the American public about the power of plants and how [plant-based
diets] can play a positive role in slowing down the pace of climate change,”
said author and entrepreneur Nil Zacharias, who moderated the press conference that
accompanied the report’s release Thursday morning.
The problem, however, is that many Americans aren’t hearing
or talking about their food’s carbon footprint. More than half of those
surveyed have rarely heard about the environmental impact of food in the media.
And nearly two-thirds said they rarely talked about how their food affects
climate change. That same number said nobody has ever asked them to eat more
In short, people don’t have the information, and aren’t
having the conversations, to change their eating habits.
“[There is] a huge gap between people’s understanding of
the reality of food system versus what they think in their heads,” said Anthony
Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Communication and
co-author of the report, at the press conference.
That gap, as well as lack of effective communication,
means that despite recent high-profile global reports on the connections
between food and climate (like Special
Report on Climate Change and Land from the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change), we’re missing an opportunity to drive climate action through
A step toward plant-based diets
The good news from the report is that, overwhelmingly, Americans
are open to incorporating more plant-based foods into their diets. Over 90% of
those surveyed said they’re willing to eat more fruits and vegetables, and
roughly half said they’re willing to eat more plant-based meat and dairy
“We’re at the early stages of what may be a profound
shift in the American diet,” said Leiserowitz. “That shift is driven by …
growing concerns about health, growing concerns about the environment and
environmental values, drop in cost for [plant-based] alternatives, and
A fifth of people surveyed reported already using
plant-based dairy alternatives between two to five times a week. This
willingness coincides with the growing popularity of plant-based foods. Though
only 4% of those surveyed identified as vegan or vegetarian, more and more people
are eating plant-based alternatives.
These diet shifts may help to lessen some of meat’s
tremendous strain on our planet’s resources, as well as the industry’s
significant carbon footprint. Animal agriculture accounts for at least 14% of
global greenhouse gas emissions and is the largest single-contributor of
methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has a warming potential 26–34
times higher than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have
eased the transition from meat, creating plant-based meat alternatives that
mimic the texture and taste of beef. Delicious and convincing plant-based alternatives
may help convert meat-eaters, as taste is a large barrier to plant-based diets,
according to Thursday’s report.
Chefs like Erick Castro, who runs the Instagram account How To Be Vegan
In the Hood, are attempting to take down this perceived barrier, making
delicious food out of all plant-based ingredients. Castro, a panelist Thursday
morning and an ambassador to Earth Day Network’s Foodprints for
the Future campaign, spoke to Earth Day Network after the event.
“I started How to be Vegan in the Hood because I wanted
to show people you can still eat what you enjoy — all the flavors and textures
— without having to harm all the animals, without having to harm planet Earth,”
An additional barrier to plant-based diets is perception.
Meat is a staple of most American diets, with 71% of survey respondents eating beef
alone at least two to five times a week. To slash that number requires an incredible
change of behavior.
“A lot of people are afraid they’re going to lose that
culture, that taste [of meat],” said Haile Thomas, Foodprints ambassador and CEO
and founder of The HAPPY Org, at the
press conference. “But when we change our perceptions, we … realize that what’s
on our plates is a form of purpose and contribution to the world, [and] that’s
when you really activate the best of humanity.”
While Thursday’s report outlines a willingness for people to eat more plants, it also highlights the many barriers people perceive to eating a plant-based diet.
In addition to not knowing what food to buy, half of
Americans think a plant-based main course is more expensive than a meat-based
main course. Also, nearly three-quarters of lower-income and half of
higher-income Americans said it costs too much too buy plant-based foods.
Cost, however, may not be as prohibitive as some people
“Most plant-based foods are actually cheaper,” said Leiserowitz.
“That’s a key misperception in many people minds.”
A healthy plant-based meal is roughly the same price as a
healthy meat-based meal. Consumer misconception may stem from the price of
plant-based meat alternatives like Beyond Meat, which go for about $9/pound. But
beans and lentils, both packed with protein, are only about $1/can, if that.
Access is also an issue, especially for lower-income
Americans. Many Americans who want to eat plant based are limited by their distance
from a grocery store and access to fresh produce. The Yale-Earth Day Network report
suggests that communities need to invest more to ensure all consumers have
access to fresh food.
“I think focusing on food deserts, making sure food
knowledge is shared equally, would be a tremendous impact for everyone,” said Castro.
On the flipside, over 90% of Americans surveyed said
health is an important motivation to choose plant-based foods. With that in
mind, over half of American surveyed said they are willing to eat less red
meat. As reports continue to link red meat consumption to heart
disease and weight
gain, and health concerns are ever present in consumers’ minds, more people
may consider more plant-based purchases in the future.
Better communication for a greener planet
When it comes to climate change, our current consumption
trends are simply unsustainable. With the large carbon footprint of animal
agriculture, consumer openness to plant-based foods marks a step toward a
“When we think about our food choices, we don’t think about
how [those choices] affect the planet,” said Earth Day Network Food and
Environment Director Jillian Semaan, who co-authored the report. “The most
immediate action we can all take individually is to stop eating meat and dairy,
or at least reduce your meat consumption.”
To get here, we must drive this point home. The findings
from today’s report from Yale and Earth Day Network suggest there are plenty of
opportunities for climate communicators to get their message out and influence the
public’s diets for both personal health benefits and long-term benefits for the
“By focusing on what motivates people, we have a better
chance of using language and communicating to them in ways that will get them
to try something different and new,” said Zacharias, speaking to the report’s
significance. “We need to change this narrative around climate change from one
of fear and dread and start to look at it as an opportunity … We have the power
to make the right choice every time we sit down to eat.”
Earth Day Network is building a future where everyone has
access to low-impact, healthy food that’s good for us and for the Earth. Learn more
about how to fight climate change with diet change at Earth Day Network’s
for the Future.
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