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U.S. Media Ignores Link Between Meat Consumption and Climate Change

Posted Dec. 27, 2017

MP3 Interview with Roni Neff, program director, Food System Sustainability & Public Health Program at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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The focus of the 2017 American Public Health Association annual meeting held in November in Atlanta was public health and climate change. The conference featured panels on various aspects of that topic, some exploring the link between agriculture and climate change.

Roni Neff, who directs the program on food systems sustainability and public health at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, participated in a discussion on a panel titled, Food and the Environment, that among other issues, examined how human dietary patterns could be leveraged to mitigate climate impacts.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Neff afterward about a study she was involved in that looked at the coverage – or almost total lack thereof in U.S. newspapers – of agricultural impacts on climate change, especially animal agriculture, and what can be done to raise awareness and minimize the inclusion of animal protein in the typical western diet.

RONI NEFF: So, this was published in 2009, and it was soon after the UN Food and Agriculture Organization came out with its report, "Livestock’s Long Shadow," which found that 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions were attributable to livestock alone. They’ve since revised that to 14 percent, but whatever, it’s still incredibly high. And so we wanted to see, how come we’re not hearing about that? Is it just my imagination or is it real? So we looked at, I believe, it’s 16 major publications over a long period of time and we found that one-half of one percent of the articles that addressed climate change addressed livestock.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Was this in the U.S. or globally?

RONI NEFF: This was U.S. newspapers.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Wow. So, do you attribute that to anything in particular or did you draw any conclusions or do you have any ideas about why that’s true?

RONI NEFF: Yeah. I think it’s how we’ve been thinking about climate change from the very beginning, it’s really been about carbon dioxide. And so it’s kind of a leap to start thinking about some of the other greenhouse gases that are very powerful, but they’re released in much smaller amounts, so I think some of the experts and leaders who have started the field of working on climate change weren’t thinking as much about food and agriculture, and it’s just kind of self-perpetuated.

I worked closely with Linnea Laestadius, someone who’s now a professor, when she was a doctoral student and she wanted to understand why non-governmental organizations weren’t talking about this even when they worked on climate change, or food, or animal welfare, but they weren’t putting together to talk about the impacts of food on climate change. So those were some of the things that we found. We also found an issue where the staff themselves – we have such strong feelings in this country about what we eat – maybe people themselves weren’t ready to make those changes. And she also found that some of them were concerned about what their donors would think, because maybe those donors also like their meat. And the third thing is that many of these advocacy organizations consider their domain to be policy work, and they said, “Well, food, that’s individual,” and they didn’t really see that there could be policy or big picture or systemic types of work they could do to address what we eat, and that’s a challenge throughout working on food, that everybody sees it as someone wagging their finger at them, telling them what to eat, as opposed to looking at the system.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I’ve been a vegetarian for 45 years, and going from being a meat eater to being vegetarian was so much easier than going from vegetarian to vegan. I don’t know … cheese is really a challenge. Like you were saying, people don’t want to change their diets. They don’t want to know the impact, especially in terms of red meat, but as we saw from the slides, there’s also a pretty big impact from dairy, and I heard it’s more burping than farting, is that true?

RONI NEFF: It is.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So is it possible to give the cows something to make them have fewer eruptions, or is that just part of the four-chamber stomach?

RONI NEFF: Yes, the quality of the feed does have something to do with how much methane is going to be emitted from the cow, absolutely, and so there’s a lot of work going on to try and formulate the feeds in ways that may be more digestible. There’s pros and cons to that, because ultimately for many reasons, because of the many environmental impacts of the way we produce meat, we may need to reduce the number [of cows] anyway, so even if we get those feeds perfectly formulated, we’re still going to have a problem.

BETWEEN THE LINES: If people who eat meat knew there are better and better meat substitutes that don’t involve animals at all, do you think that’s a viable way to move more people off of animal protein?

RONI NEFF: That’s a great question. There are a lot of different types of approaches that can be helpful and so, if there are meat substitutes that are palatable that are also low in greenhouse gas emissions that taste good and are affordable, that can be a win-win. Those pieces don’t always go together as much as we might hope, but that could be a goal. Many people also say they don’t know how to cook vegetarian meals; we’ve done some survey research; people just think those meals are boring. Also, there’s a lot of people who think a meal is not healthy that doesn’t have meat in it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I’m making a face when you said people think vegetarian meals are boring. I think meat and potatoes and canned green beans or whatever that a lot of us grew up on, is really boring, and I think vegetarian food is phenomenally creative and delicious.

RONI NEFF: I’m with you. And I think there’s just this renaissance of people creating interesting recipes and really finding ways to bring out the flavors of the foods, and so anybody who’s interested can just look on the Internet; you’ll find a lot of really appealing recipes.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And just in terms of systems as opposed to individual choices, what would you like our listeners to take away?

RONI NEFF: I think the first thing to know is how incredibly large a footprint animal agriculture has – and particularly beef production – compared to any other food, and even compared to the overall set of things that are emitting greenhouse gases, like agriculture has a higher footprint than transportation. Number two is that there’s so much that we can do, whether it’s finding ways to eat more appealing vegetarian meals,; whether it’s looking at reducing the amount of food that we waste – because we waste 40 percent of our food supply in the U.S. – there’s a lot that we can do.

For more information, visit Roni Neff's faculty page at jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/about/staff/Bios/roni.

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