Foodprints for the Future

Miss Montana USA advocates for plant-based diets amid public backlash

In Montana, cattle outnumber people nearly 3 to 1. Unsurprisingly, agriculture and livestock are Montana’s largest industries. So when a vegan who promotes plant-based diets was crowned Miss Montana USA, Montanans had a cow.

Merissa Underwood, a 27-year-old political science student, is this year’s Miss Montana USA. She’s been vegan since 2015 and represents Earth Day Network’s Foodprints for Future campaign as an ambassador.

“Climate change and animal rights are the most important issues that we face today, not only for our generation, but for the people who have come before us and the people who will come after us,” Underwood told Earth Day Network. “It’s going to affect everybody, and it’s bigger than me.”

Underwood’s language echoes a recent special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report commissioned by the United Nations stated that “a shift toward plant-based diets” is one of the most significant ways to reduce greenhouse gases from the agriculture sector.

Underwood’s advocacy for animal rights and veganism, however, hasn’t been as cut and dry as peer-reviewed research. Her stance on plant-based diets has spurred online backlash from her fellow Montanans, culminating in social criticism, insults and personal attacks.

One needs only to scroll through her Instagram to find comments like “I’m embarrassed that the people of Montana have you falsely representing them,” and “You’re representing Montana? How about you turn off your phone and have a steak instead.”

What’s inspiring these reactions? For one thing, it feels personal — many people don’t want to hear that their diet habits fuel climate change. And when people feel their lifestyle is threatened, they tend to get defensive and lash out.

“Most of these people are fourth- and fifth- generation ranchers and farmers and it is all they have ever known,” said Underwood. “I’m attacking their way of life.”

And it’s not just individuals; Underwood’s stance has elicited strong responses from entire industries. When Underwood recently posted an infographic from the documentary Cowspiracy on her Instagram story, the Montana Stockgrowers Association responded with an open letter posted on the MSA Instagram account. The letter stated that the association appreciated her passion but felt “disappointed in the misleading and inaccurate information” she shared.

The letter, however, sidestepped the major role that animal agriculture plays in global carbon emissions and climate change. The letter failed to mention that animal agriculture accounts for at least 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, and the letter downplayed that animal agriculture is one of the largest sources of methane emissions, an extremely potent greenhouse gas.

Beef is also incredibly resource intensive and an inefficient means of obtaining protein, using 20 times more land and emitting 20 times more greenhouse gases per gram of edible protein than protein-packed plants like beans.

Unfortunately for Underwood, as her fellow environmentalists know well, people are rarely persuaded by numbers alone. If they were, we wouldn’t be in a climate emergency. To change mindsets, we also need to engage with people at an emotional level.

Most of these people are fourth- and fifth- generation ranchers and farmers and it is all they have ever known. I’m attacking their way of life.

Merissa Underwood, Miss Montana USA

“While I can spew all these facts and logic at them, it’s not going to change anything,” said Underwood. “[Change] has to come through some level of emotional connection and understanding.”

To connect in a meaningful way on climate change, we need stories that communicate the universal impacts of climate change, a far more persuasive tactic than any fact sheet.

Underwood has used her friction with MSA as an opportunity to talk to ranchers who have disagreed with her stance. Most conversations have been constructive, and even when they don’t sway opinions, they can still be valuable. And as she does with these ranchers, Underwood has also taken to Instagram, engaging with social media users with some positive results.

“It went from ‘I never want to see your face again, you’re disgusting’ to at the end, ‘Oh my god I want to meet you so badly, I love you so much, can we be friends?,’” Underwood said.

We’re going to need these tough and uncomfortable conversations if we hope to avoid the worst impacts of a climate catastrophe. If plant-based diets became the cultural norm, or even if enough people on the fence switched to a primarily plant-based diet, we would be much closer to a sustainable future.

For example, if we in high-consuming countries decreased our ruminant beef consumption to about 50 calories a day, we wouldn’t need more land to expand agriculture in the future, and we wouldn’t have to deal with the associated deforestation and carbon emissions that comes with that expansion.

This transition is obviously difficult (50 calories a day is about one and a half burgers a week), but outspoken leaders like Underwood and others could aid in this process, especially if high-profile celebrities continue lending their platform to promoting plant-based diets — as Joaquin Phoenix did through his acceptance speech this month at the Golden Globes.

The meat industry — at least in the U.S. and at its current scale — is unsustainable if we’re to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the U.N. Paris Agreement. To hit this temperature target, we need to drastically reduce our carbon footprint, and that means cutting back on beef, even if it means going against the cultural grain.

As a vegan representing a state of proud meat eaters and cattle ranchers, Underwood has had a rough few months. But when asked if she ever felt compelled to choose another issue, she saw no other choice. She believes fighting climate change with diet change is imperative to the health of ourselves and this planet. 

“With the platform and microphone I have,” she said, “I think it’s such a waste if I were to talk about something else. ”