John M. Marzluff—
Crises that we face have the power to bring good from evil. As dust storms ravaged the Midwest in the 1930s, farmers embraced the new science of soil conservation. In the aftermath of 9/11, nations enhanced their airport security. How living through the COVID-19 pandemic might forever change us has been the subject of recent speculation. Personal hygiene and appreciation for essential, but often overlooked, workers may increase at least in the short-term. But I wonder if we might use this crisis as motivation to remake our diets for the benefit of nature and future generations of humans.
One of humanity’s most significant challenges for the coming century is how to feed an increasing, and increasingly affluent, population while also conserving nature. Projections suggest our population will top 9 billion by 2050 and 11 billion by 2100. As our wealth increases, so too does our consumption of meat. In the United States, for example, we ate 27.3 billion pounds of beef in 2019. The grain-fed cattle we crave crowd into feedlots, burp methane, demand grains from one-third of earth’s land surface, and pollute our streams with nitrogen. Already nature is on the run as species extinctions increase, and ecosystems worldwide face unprecedented pressure from our changing climate. Yet there is hope that we can feed people and provide land for nature, even with moderate changes in our behavior. A study published in 2018 by authors from around the world, for example, found that modest increases in crop yields in areas currently underproducing, reductions in food waste (one-third of all food produced never reaches our stores or mouths), and adopting a healthier diet would allow us to reduce projected environmental degradation by 25–45%. Of these changes, reducing the meat in our diet has the greatest potential to lower global greenhouse gas emissions and therefore address not only food availability and land conservation, but also our influence on climate change.
Reducing our consumption of meat does not mean we must all become vegans or even vegetarians (though our options to conserve nature and feed the world are more abundant if we do). Consuming 2,100–2,200 calories per day while eating no more than one serving of red meat per week, one-half serving of white meat per day, and a single serving of dairy foods each day would allow us to meet the targets above and halve projected greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
We are beginning to feel the consequences of our overreliance on large-scale meat production as workers suffer from COVID-19, supplies in our stores dwindle, and prices increase. Why not turn this hardship into a sustained boost for your health and that of our planet? The options for meat-free meals seem to expand each day with new meat substitutes now available at fast-food chains and suitable for your home grill. And when you do eat red meat, ask your butcher or local farmer about grass-fed beef or bison. These lean and healthy alternatives to fatty grain-fed beef are sustained on native and biologically diverse grassland ecosystems.
Procuring meat from local outlets, like our many farmers’ markets, not only provides healthy alternatives to industrial beef and pork, it allows you to know your producer. Speaking with your farmer can open other conversations with significant ecological consequences. Chief among these is a discussion about how your farmer cares for the land. Carbon sequestration is increased when farmers reduce tilling, fallow fields, plant cover crops, and set aside hard-to-work bits of land for nature. Wildlife benefits when ranchers embrace non-lethal means to reduce conflicts with native predators, delay mowing hay until grassland birds have nested, and carefully graze in and around wetlands. Your purchase has the power to change farming practice. Put it to work.
While in quarantine, an increasing number of people have turned to nearby nature for comfort. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, remember the solace found in birds, clean air, and natural beauty. Let’s return the favor by turning the meat crisis into a healthy diet that increases the ecological sustainability of our farms and ranches.
John M. Marzluff is Professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington and author of In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land.