Foodprints for the Future

Going vegan for the planet? Try one step at a time

It’s World Vegan Day, which for some, may raise images of health zealots and crunchy-granola hippies. In the last decade, however, veganism has undergone a mainstream transformation, with famed supporters like Zac Efron, Venus Williams and Bill Clinton.

“The most challenging part about being vegan has been the societal distaste — and distrust — of the word ‘vegan,’” says Sabrina Scull, food and environment campaign coordinator at Earth Day Network. “Luckily, this is becoming less frequent as more people recognize the health and environmental benefits of eating a more plant-based diet.”

Scull works on Earth Day Network’s Foodprints for the Future campaign, which connects our food choices with climate solutions by advocating for more plant-based diets, greater food accessibility and reduced food waste. At its heart, Foodprints addresses our food systems, identifying food production, consumption and disposal as some of the largest contributors to climate change.

So, if you want to save the planet and curb greenhouse gas emissions, one of the most immediate ways to do so is ditching meat for plants.

Where’s the beef?

Meat is problematic, not only for our health but also for the planet’s. Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, accounting for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent of the emissions from every car, train, plane and ship on Earth.

In the U.S., industrialized livestock drive deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, which fuel climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlined these problems and more this summer, in its special report on climate change and land use. Unless we transform our food systems, which includes animal agricultural practices and changes in diet, we’re primed for an even warmer world, which, in turn, will bring more droughts, wildfires, insect outbreaks and extreme weather events.

The good news is that carbon’s carbon, no matter the source. Any step you can take to reduce CO2 — from limiting air travel to installing solar panels — helps fight climate change. Cutting out or your reducing your consumption of meat is something that almost anyone can do. This small switch can make a big impact.

“Unlike other complex solutions, food is so simple,” said Dotsie Bausch on an Earth Day Network press call this month. “Each and every one of us has the power to make a positive impact three or more times a day, with every food choice we make.”

According to Project Drawdown, transitioning to plant-rich diet is the number four solution out of 100 to reducing total atmospheric CO2 (reducing food waste — another thing we can each do individually — is number three). Simply substituting one meal of chicken a week for vegetables and grains would be the same as taking more than half a million U.S. cars of the road, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Going vegan — at your own pace

We know going vegan can sound scary, especially when faced with the prospects of a pizza-less experience. We get it, and so does Scull. That’s why she and countless others suggest “taking your time easing into a more flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diet.”

No one’s saying you should go cold turkey (or cow or pig), but we can all learn from a couple seasoned vets on how to transition from all that meat and dairy that currently comprises the modern diet.

“When I transitioned my diet, I read a lot about different vegan recipes and diet staples and sought the advice of vegans I knew,” said Scull. “Overall, I recommend trying to eat less meat as much as possible, perhaps trying to be vegan or vegetarian for a couple of days a week.”

Like the Meat Free Monday campaign, incorporating a few plant-based choices into your diet, one step at a time, can be a good way to cut down on your personal carbon emissions.

“I don’t think you can approach with a sledgehammer,” said Paul McCartney, a leader of the campaign, in an interview with National Geographic. “You’ve got to kind of just keep it gentle.”

Echoing this approach, environmental advocate and former actress Suzy Amis Cameron argues you don’t have to go vegan at every meal to have a positive impact on the planet. In her book “One Meal a Day: The Simple, Plant-Based Program to Save Your Health, Save Your Waistline, and Save the Planet,” Amis Cameron writes, “By switching one meat- or dairy-based meal a day, we can slash our personal water and carbon footprint by about 25 percent.”

Jonathan Safran Foer, author of “We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast,” suggests another way to cut back on meat products: going vegan for breakfast and lunch. In an interview with Slate, Foer references a report published in Nature that stated people in the U.S. and U.K. need to eat 90% less red meat and 60% less diary to save the planet from the worst effects of climate change.

“I, for one, don’t really want to keep a little diary of all the food that I’m eating and do the math at the end of every day or every week,” Foer said. “So I was trying to think of what’s a convenient way to think about approaching those numbers that is also going to feel possible.”

The climate crisis is big. Global warming, by definition, is global. Through that lens, tackling climate change by curbing carbon emissions seems daunting, almost impossible, for one individual. But changing our diets is one way we can make a significant impact.

“A vegan diet is more ethical, for the welfare of animals and the planet, but also for our fellow humans and our future generations,” said Scull. “Going vegan is the most immediate action you can take to reduce your carbon footprint and help fight climate change.”