Jessica Scott-Reid is a Winnipeg-based writer, animal advocate, and the co-host of Canada’s animal law podcast, Paw & Order.
You may have heard – from such sources as Fox News, Donald Trump Jr., and Britain’s Daily Mail – that U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate change plans would include a law that would slash Americans’ beef consumption by 90 per cent. But no, Mr. Biden didn’t say that; after a frenzy from Republicans and American meat-eaters, the falsehood has since been retracted. But the non-news remains significant in this way: It signalled yet another serious cultural conversation taking place in the United States about meat production and its effect on the planet – a conversation that isn’t happening here in Canada as it should.
The beef proposal may have been false, but the impetus behind it would have stemmed from a very real study published in 2020 by the University of Michigan and Tulane University. The research found that reducing beef consumption by 90 per cent in the U.S., along with a 50-per-cent reduction in other animal products, could keep more than 2 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution out of the atmosphere. “That’s roughly equivalent to taking nearly half the world’s cars off the roads for a year,” according to a statement from the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity, which supported the research.
These findings complement a notable 2018 study published in the journal Nature. That paper called for Western countries to reduce beef and pork consumption by 90 per cent, while pulling back on poultry and milk by 60 per cent and replacing that with four to six times more beans and pulses, to help keep current food systems within environmental limits.
Other food institutions have recently joined in the burgeoning conversation. In late April, the popular U.S. cooking website Epicurious announced it would no longer be posting or promoting any new recipes for beef, stating that “cutting out just a single ingredient – beef – can have an outsize impact on making a person’s cooking more environmentally friendly.” It added that the move was about “not giving airtime to one of the world’s worst climate offenders,” citing United Nations data that found that nearly 15 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from animal farming.
A week later, the world-renowned, three-Michelin-star Manhattan restaurant Eleven Madison Park announced that it would be going completely plant-based, with chef Daniel Humm telling The New York Times: “The current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways.” In the same article, Ruth Reichl, a former editor of the magazine Gourmet and the Times’ onetime food critic, stated that Mr. Humm’s example “could influence the direction of American restaurant cuisine in the years ahead.” Let’s hope she’s right.
Yet here in Canada – which should be a leader in the promotion of sustainable plant proteins – cultural and political conversations around meat and the environmental consequences of its production and consumption have yet to take this much-needed turn.
For a moment, it appeared we were on the right track. In 2018, Alberta’s provincial government funded the formation of the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta (PPAA), with a mandate of helping plant-protein farmers and companies grow. A year later, the latest edition of the Canada Food Guide – published with the help of science rather than industry – focused on plant proteins and removed dairy as a food group. And in 2020, the federal government announced it was investing $100-million into Merit Functional Foods, a Canadian company specializing in plant-based protein production.
Since then, though, the PPAA has lost its funding and shut down. Provincial and federal governments continue to use taxpayer money to fund meat, dairy and egg production via subsidies, grants and loans worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. And we continue to rely on U.S. plant-based-protein companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods to take a leadership position in the Canadian market via our fast-food chains.
Real progress on sustainable food production and on Canadians’ understanding of how much climate damage is caused by meat has been thwarted for too long. Canada needs to move the meat-versus-climate conversation to where it needs to be – now.
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