ANN ARBOR, MI – As city leaders aim to make the community carbon-neutral in the next 10 years, they may consider the benefits of a vegan diet.
Ann Arbor resident Andrea Wotan raised the issue at City Council this past week, citing research showing a plant-based diet is more environmentally sustainable and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
“Saving our planet needs to be the world’s top priority right now, because nothing else matters if we and our children are living on a dead planet, and we’re already witnessing the devastation of climate change,” she said.
Wotan asked city leaders to add “a critically important component” to the city’s carbon-neutrality plan.
“That is the carbon impact of our meat and dairy consumption,” she said. “We, the citizens of Ann Arbor, must cut down on meat and dairy if we are serious about doing our part to save the planet. No matter what other steps we take, we’ll likely still lose this planet if we don’t rein in our collective demand for meat and dairy starting immediately.”
Andrea Wotan appears before the Ann Arbor City Council on Jan. 21, 2020, calling on council to take a stance against meat and dairy to reduce carbon emissions.
Council Member Jeff Hayner, a longtime vegetarian, thanked Wotan for speaking, noting she also spoke at a recent forum about PFAS pollution in drinking water.
“Clearly she’s active and involved in concerns about the environment and I couldn’t agree more,” he said. “Not only should the city be doing what we can to reduce our consumption of meat and dairy, I think that it should go in our A2Zero plan that we should encourage residents to do that.”
Missy Stults, the city’s sustainability manager, said she’s heard similar comments through the public process for the city’s carbon-neutrality initiative.
“It’s something the Resource-Reduction Technical Advisory Committee is looking into, understanding what kind of policies, behavioral change, institutional/structural adjustments could we make to support a healthier, more sustainable diet,” she said. “I don’t have a specific answer yet, because we’re in kind of the initial prioritization phase, but the idea has certainly been well articulated and we’re exploring it.”
The city could theoretically institute policies restricting city spending on meat and dairy, Stults said, but it’s harder to tell residents what they should eat.
Any plan to encourage a vegan diet is sure to receive some pushback, as there was in the national political debate around the Green New Deal last year, with former Trump administration official Sebastian Gorka famously declaring, “They want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”
A vegan diet may be the single biggest way to reduce one’s impact on the planet, according to Joseph Poore, a University of Oxford researcher whose study published in the journal Science in 2018 showed, without meat and dairy, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%.
Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old climate activist from Sweden named Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, adheres to a vegan diet to minimize her carbon footprint.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations issued a report in 2006 titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” calling the livestock sector one of the top two or three most significant contributors to serious environmental problems, estimating it was responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The report suggested it should be a major policy focus when dealing with issues of land degradation, climate change, air and water pollution, water shortage and biodiversity loss.
A newer analysis by the organization estimated the global livestock sector is responsible for 14.5% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Animal agriculture is the leading source of methane emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
However, EPA estimated the entire agricultural sector was responsible for only 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, behind transportation at 29%, electricity generation at 28% and other industry pollution at 22%.
Hayner, D-1st Ward, said when the Sierra Club asked him the biggest thing he’s ever done for the environment, he initially thought maybe his work on water issues.
“Then I thought, no, the biggest thing I’ve ever done was to try to live an environmental lifestyle where 35 years ago I stopped eating meat and almost dairy,” he said. “And my whole family’s been raised up that way, and my wife just went vegan about three months ago.”
Aside from greenhouse gas emissions, Hayner said, the meat and dairy industries are “super complicit in overuse of water, and they’re also very complicit in the deforestation, especially in Brazil and the southern hemisphere where huge amounts of forests are torn down for giant soy plantations,” he said, noting those crops are used for feeding cattle.
The livestock industry is “catastrophic for the planet,” Wotan said, because the two primary gases produced are methane and nitrous oxide, which trap more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
“It is urgent that we immediately cut these gases, because they’re doing monumentally more harm to the planet right now than carbon dioxide,” she said.
Wotan suggested people should strive to reduce meat and dairy consumption by 50%.
The National Resources Defense Council estimated Americans reduced beef consumption 19% between 2005 and 2014, the emissions equivalent of taking 39 million cars off the road. If every American cut one hamburger a week from their diet, it would amount to taking 10 million cars off the road, according to NRDC.
A report in The Economist last year suggested going vegan for two-thirds of meals could cut food-related carbon emissions by 60%.
Aside from vegan protein staples like quinoa, lentils, tempeh, tofu and chickpeas, new alternatives to meat that have hit the market in recent years like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger are making it easier for carnivores to change diets, while almond, cashew, soy and coconut milk products provide vegan alternatives to a wide range of dairy products.
The National Restaurant Association predicts plant-based proteins and meat alternatives will “take off in response to increased consumer demand” this year and continue to grow in popularity during the next decade.
There’s precedent now for public policy to reduce meat and dairy consumption for sustainability reasons, Wotan told Ann Arbor officials.
“For example, in April 2019, New York City’s mayor announced the Green New Deal for the city, including a plan to phase out purchase of processed meat and reduce beef purchases by 50% by 2040,” she said.
“Ann Arbor is a smart place. We can figure out how to measure changes in citizens’ meat and dairy consumption and derive a carbon value to attach to those changes for the A2Zero plan. Let’s make history.”
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