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Food Policy: U.S. must reduce meat consumption by 82%

New research concludes that the U.S. must reduce meat and poultry consumption by 82% to operate within planetary health boundaries.

The United States' astronomical meat and poultry consumption is impacting the climate and ecosystems worldwide. Thousands of acres of the Amazon rainforest, the lungs of the Earth, have been destroyed to grow soy feed for U.S. chickens and cattle. Cattle and farmed animal manure are some of the top emitters of methane and nitrous oxide, two extremely potent greenhouse gases fueling heat waves and increasing wildfire frequency. Densely packed poultry barns have given rise to highly pathogenic avian influenza, which has killed untold numbers of wild birds worldwide, including critically endangered species such as the California condor. As one of the highest meat-consuming nations, our diets are having a disproportionate impact on the rest of the world. Emerging research calls for the U.S. to set ambitious meat reduction targets to shift toward a sustainable food system.

Key Facts:

  • The U.S. is the number one meat-consuming nation per capita in the world, eating over half a pound of meat per person every day.
  • In total weight, the U.S. consumes fourteen times more meat than Australia and almost twice the amount of meat as the entire African continent.
  • If the entire human population adopted the same diets as the G20 nations by 2050, we would exceed the planet's limits for food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 263%. Worldwide adoption of the American diet would require over five Earths to support.
  • In 2019, diets high in processed meat were responsible for 304,000 deaths and diets high in red meat were responsible for 896,000 deaths globally.
  • Animal farming already uses over three-quarters of the planet's agricultural land. If we continue at the current rate of meat and dairy consumption per person, the amount of cropland needed will increase by 67% by 2050. That's about the size of Brazil.
  • Producing enough nutritious food within planetary boundaries for an estimated 10 billion people by 2050 will only be possible with a significant reduction in animal-sourced foods in the G20 countries and a global increase in plant-based foods in our diets.
Collage of vegetable and legume farmers with a plate of nuts and legumes

What are planetary health boundaries?

The planet's land, water, and soil nutrients are finite. Furthermore, if greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss are left unchecked, they can reach a tipping point, causing catastrophic effects on global civilization and on the planet. Scientists have identified six key earth processes and factors—climate change, nitrogen cycling, phosphorus cycling, water, biodiversity, and land use—that must stay within certain boundaries for a healthy, sustainable planet. Our food system's greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen and phosphorus use, water irrigation, cropland use, and extinction caused by habitat loss and pesticides all threaten to knock these factors out of balance.

In 2019, a team of 37 scientists from across disciplines known as the EAT-Lancet Commission developed global dietary guidelines that optimize both human health and environmental sustainability. The report concluded that globally, increasing the consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and decreasing red meat, sugar, and refined grain consumption would provide major health benefits and increase the likelihood of achieving the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals and staying below 2°C global warming.

The United States is Dangerously Off Track

However, human diets vary greatly from region to region and from country to country. As a result, the dietary shifts needed to sustain public health and restore our planet are different among nations.

In May 2023, CIWF released a groundbreaking report analyzing the current food consumption patterns by country and how they compare to the EAT-Lancet diet optimized for human and environmental health. As the top meat-consuming country in the world, the United States must reduce its total meat and poultry consumption by 82% to meet the EAT-Lancet's planetary health guideline. This is the first science-based national reduction target that can be incorporated into local, state, and federal government policy.

Collage of farmers and of people eating

Roadmap to 82% Reduction by 2050

Despite the significant role that meat and poultry production play in the climate, biodiversity, and public health crises, little concern has been given to food in government policy. Just as many governments have committed to reducing fossil fuels and transitioning to clean energy, U.S. policymakers must commit to reducing meat and transitioning to plant-forward diets if we are to realistically stay below 2°C (3.6°F) global warming and within planetary health boundaries. Thankfully, many of the levers and solutions to meat overconsumption are already available. However, multiple interventions will need to be implemented simultaneously to achieve this target. CIWF has identified 13 key interventions the U.S. government and other stakeholders can leverage to achieve this reduction target:

According to the EAT-Lancet Commission, the consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes must double globally to achieve healthy and sustainable diets. These foods not only provide key nutrients such as fiber, omega-3s, and low-fat protein, but legumes, nuts, and seeds are also much more efficient to produce, requiring less land and water than animal-sourced foods.

However, the existing U.S. agricultural policy framework is heavily skewed to encourage the production of commodity crops such as corn and soy used for animal feed, and thereby discourages the production of "specialty" crops such as legumes, nuts, and vegetables. Reforming state and federal agricultural policies can increase the appeal and profitability of farming these crops. For example, Congress can expand and strengthen the Whole Farm Revenue Insurance Option to incentivize and provide greater security to farms growing diverse specialty crops rather than one or two commodity crops.

Implementing and expanding regenerative agriculture is integral to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, restoring biodiversity, regulating nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, preventing air and water pollution, and improving farmed animal health and welfare. When done well, regenerative agriculture can also remove carbon from the atmosphere by storing it in soil and vegetation and filter out air and water pollution. At minimum, regenerative agriculture practices include cover cropping and no- or low-tilling. However, more advanced techniques, such as rotational prescribed grazing, silvopasture, pollinator habitat, and food forests must be incorporated widely into U.S. agriculture to reach the 82% target and remain within planetary-health boundaries.

Indigenous peoples' deep, hyper-localized knowledge of their lands has enabled them to steward ecosystems sustainably for centuries. However, the forced removal of indigenous peoples from their lands, industrialization, and multiple other factors have led to the devastation of ancestral land and ecosystem collapse. Genuine collaboration with Indigenous Nations, restoration of Indigenous land rights, and revival and expansion of Indigenous stewardship practices can significantly restore carbon sinks and ecosystems while also contributing to the food system. While there are hundreds of Indigenous land stewardship practices, some examples include prescribed fires, managing wild bison and other herding animals, and planting symbiotic crops together, such as corn, beans, and squash.

Alternative proteins, including plant-based foods, fermented proteins, and cultivated meat, can offer a diverse food supply while satisfying a variety of taste palates and traditions around food. While the sector has expanded tremendously over the past decade, more investment in technical research, market research, academic training, company startups, consumer education, and more is needed to achieve the large-scale production and adoption of these foods that is necessary to remain within planetary boundaries.

Financial mechanisms can be used in various ways to shift national food production and consumption patterns. For example, grants, tax rebates, and insurance discounts for regenerative farming practices can incentivize their uptake and expansion. Taxes can also be used to decrease production of and/or demand for overconsumed foods that are out of line with planetary-health diets. 

Public institutions such as hospitals, K-12 schools, universities, museums and art centers, and correctional facilities can help set the example by aligning their procurement and meal offerings with a planetary-health diet. These institutions can also leverage their significant buying power to quickly create the market demand for more plant-based foods and less and better animal-sourced foods.

Few corporations currently report emissions and environmental metrics on their food procurement in their ESG and sustainability reports. Closing this data gap by encouraging businesses to track and report food-related emissions can help sustainability managers, investors, and other stakeholders understand their environmental impact and identify and prioritize opportunities for improvement.

Governments can reconsider and restructure current trade agreements and policies to align with meat reduction targets and increase imports of plant-based foods. These agreements can also be leveraged to source any meat products from sustainable, higher-welfare producers. 

In the U.S., billions of dollars in public and private funding support the mass production of cheap meat and poultry. Shifting this funding to plant-based food production can both drastically increase their supply and help make healthy plant-based foods more affordable for Americans. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. students receive less than eight hours of nutrition education each school year, far below the 40-50 hours needed to affect behavior change. Investing more time and resources into nutrition education in public schools and through public programming can help Americans better understand what constitutes a healthy diet and why a healthy diet is important for personal and planetary well-being. Some examples of nutrition education opportunities include farm-to-school programs, school gardens, classroom lessons or assemblies, and student involvement in cafeteria meal creation and taste tests.

The National Dietary Guidelines (NDGs) are the basis for U.S. food and nutrition policies. However, the current NDGs do not go far enough to align with planetary-health dietary guidelines. Revising the guidelines to more accurately reflect the health and environmental impacts of meat and poultry consumption can help set a foundation for better aligned food policies.

Requiring companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions, environmental and health impacts, and methods of production can help consumers make more informed buying decisions. Such labeling can also bolster fair marketplace competition for value-added and niche products.

Consumer nudging uses behavioral science to make sustainable diet options the most appealing choice. For example, consumer nudging could include featuring planetary-health meals on a menu, placing them more prominently in a buffet or grocery store, or making them the lowest-cost option.


Does this mean we cannot eat meat anymore?

According to the EAT-Lancet recommendations, a diet optimized for both human and planetary health can include up to 92 kcal of meat and poultry per day (or 644 kcal/week), based on a 2500 kcal/day diet. 

What about eggs, dairy, and seafood?

In addition to meat and poultry, the research identified that the United States would also need to reduce egg, dairy, and seafood consumption by 70%, 60%, and 6%, respectively, to align with planetary-health diets. This equates to about five servings of animal-sourced foods per week.

CIWF encourages governments to also consider these targets, but we recognize that change takes time and is often done in phases. Therefore, we urge policymakers with limited capacity to make meat and poultry reduction the first priority.

What about other countries? Don't they need to reduce meat consumption as well?

Yes. CIWF's analysis includes reduction targets for the top 25 animal-sourced food consuming nations. For the full list, see page 14 of More Money, More Meat: High-income countries must lead on reduction. However, it is important to note that the 25 countries listed are based on per capita consumption. As the third most populous country in the world, the United States' total meat consumption is significantly higher than many of the other nations listed.

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