Confidential Memo Leaked
Re: why we all need to eat less meat
To kick off the new year, we bring you this special issue of The Instigator that follows extensive investigative reporting. Below is a confidential memo written by the Chief of Staff at one of the biggest environmental NGOs to his CEO. Names have been deleted to protect our sources.
Okay, just kidding. The memo below is fake. We made it up. But why aren’t memos like this being written? What do you think? Do you agree that environmentalists should prioritize this important opportunity? What would you do about this if you ran a big NGO?
From: Chief of Staff
Re: Strategy to Address Climate Change and Biodiversity Challenges
Good environmental progress was achieved over the past year. We should be proud that our organization played a key role in making that happen, alongside our fellow NGOs, government agencies, activists, and some private sector players.
But we still face huge challenges.
On the climate front, greenhouse gas emissions keep rising. And at the same time, biodiversity continues to decline largely due to ecosystem degradation.
To truly lead in our field, we need to determine how our NGO can best accelerate progress on both these fronts. What is the most important opportunity that is not getting enough attention and focus?
The single best way for us to accelerate progress on climate change and biodiversity is to focus on land use. More specifically, we should champion plant-based diets and meat substitutes.
The reasoning is two-fold:
Land-use change (mostly deforestation) is one of the biggest sources of climate-changing carbon emissions, constituting about 24% of annual emissions. Yet it gets far less attention than fossil fuels. What is the main cause of changes to land use? The expansion of agriculture, most of which does not feed humans (for example, some 80% of soy is fed to livestock). Feeding livestock is an extremely inefficient and carbon-intensive way of feeding humans.
Land use change (especially deforestation) is also the biggest threat to biodiversity, since it degrades the habitats that harbor biodiversity.
We need to focus on all types of land use degradation, but forests should be our top focus. Protecting forests reduces carbon emissions and bolsters biodiversity, period. And the best way to do that is to slow — and ultimately stop — agricultural expansion, which can only be done if humans eat less meat.
Of course we know it's difficult to change people’s diets. We’d love to see people choose to eat less meat on their own, but that has not generally happened. Fortunately, there are now a variety of plant-based meat substitutes to select from: Impossible, Beyond, and even conventional meat producers like Tyson all produce a variety of good-tasting and affordable substitutes. And lab-grown meat substitutes will soon be commercially available too.
Adopting this position will not be an easy strategy to execute. We expect various challenges:
People like meat. Environmentalists are mostly unwilling to challenge this notion and accept that people should reduce meat consumption for a greater purpose. In fact, it was shocking to hear from participants at the Biodiversity COP in Montreal that it was difficult to find non-meat based sandwiches for lunch.
Why is it that many environmentalists never hesitate to tell big oil, Blackrock, JPMorgan, Senator Manchin and others that they must absolutely move away from fossil fuels ASAP, but they remain mostly silent about the consequences of eating meat? It seems to me a complete contradiction.
The good news is that this opportunity remains wide open for us. Only a few environmental organizations mention diet as a climate opportunity, and even they do so in a low-profile way.
Focusing on meat is mission drift for our NGO. It is true that this would be a shift in priority, but it is absolutely mission aligned.
Donors would be upset. Donors can be easily offended, but it seems likely that for every donor we lose because of this initiative, we would attract new ones – those who want to support NGOs that tackle tough, overlooked challenges.
People want to support farmers. As they should! Bolstering our "smart agriculture" initiative would address this desire. Our team is confident that farmers' businesses will improve if they shift to no- or reduced-till farming coupled with payments for soil-based carbon sequestration and other environmentally friendly practices.
Lots of organizations talk about smart agriculture but most don't push for substantive change. Imagine if all of the financial incentives/subsidies available to farmers today – i.e., the Farm Bill in the US – actually incentivized farmers to do what’s best for the environment?
Plant-based meat substitutes don't taste as good as real meat. Even if this were true, it would be a poor reason for inaction. Again, many environmentalists never hesitate to advocate that entire industries be changed or made obsolete for climate progress. Surely we could adjust our food preferences a bit.
Plant-based meat is more expensive. Lower income individuals and families may be legitimately concerned about the cost differences in switching to plant-based meat. As part of this strategy, we would ask our government policy team to advocate for shifting subsidies and incentives away from supporting meat and toward supporting substitutes. If market distorting subsidies were removed, plant-based meat should be the less expensive option — just a matter of inputs and fundamental costs. Moreover, in the long term, if we are successful at significantly growing demand for meat alternatives, volume will increase and prices will fall further. Indeed, that's the biggest opportunity here. As we look ahead to parts of the world like India and China where so many people are entering the middle class and seeking more protein-rich diets, it will be important to offer low-cost, good-tasting meat substitutes.
Environmental groups are not animal rights advocates. It’s odd that organizations such as ours fight so hard to protect species at risk of extinction – as we should – but then are silent about the cruelties inflicted on cattle, cows, pigs, and chickens caught up in factory farming. We claim to care about all species. This strategy would support that claim.
Please note that there are many other positive outcomes from this strategy that align with our environmental mission. For example, we know that runoff from huge chicken farms is ruining rivers. Likewise, we know that profligate use of antibiotics in the cattle business is allowing dangerous viruses to evolve that are immune to such medicines. We know that cattle and sheep grazing on public lands damage habitat and often leads to the killing of wolves, mountain lions, bears and other predators. And so on.
All in all, despite some challenges – none of which are insurmountable – it seems clear that advocating for the reduction in meat consumption would be one of the highest-yield strategies for accelerating environmental progress. I therefore recommend making this a top priority initiative in 2023.
Corn for ethanol and soy for renewable diesel are major contributors to inefficient and environmentally unsound land use. Better ways to subsidize farmers needs to be found.