Changes to the American diet between 2005 and 2014 resulted in a nine percent decrease in the average American’s carbon footprint, according to a new report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Due to these dietary changes, Americans avoided about 271 million metric tons of climate-warming pollution—or about the equivalent of the emissions from 57 million cars.
The vast majority of the environmental benefits came from a decrease in the amount of beef Americans consumed. During this period, Americans bought 19 percent less beef, avoiding 185 million metric tons of climate-warming pollution—about the equivalent of the emissions from 39 million cars.
Eating less of other foods—like orange juice, pork, whole milk, chicken and nonfat dry milk—also helped. But beef has the largest carbon footprint. Raising cattle requires a lot of land and feed. Most of that feed is grown with petroleum-based fertilizers. Processing and using that fertilizer releases nitrous oxide, a gas with almost 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. In addition, cattle and their manure release methane, which has about 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.
The analysis “just shows that small changes in our diets have impacts,” said Sujatha Bergen, a policy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s a very concrete association between reduced red meat consumption and reduced emissions.”
The beef industry called the NRDC’s link between beef consumption and harmful emissions “fallacious.” The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association noted that beef production remained relatively stable over this time period—about 25 billion pounds in 2005 and 24 billion pounds in 2014—with more of the cattle being exported.
“It’s not fair to link consumption numbers domestically to production numbers domestically,” said Hillary Makens, a spokesperson for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.