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Shift to Non-Animal Products

In some countries, such as the United States, a majority of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the agriculture sector result from raising animals and growing the crops used to feed those animals. Much usable energy is lost in the conversion from plant to animal biomass (as energy moves up one trophic level in the food chain). As a result, after accounting for nutritional equivalency, more than twice as many people could be supported on a healthy plant-based diet as on today's typical American diet while using the same amount of cropland. Lower per-capita land, water, and fertilizer requirements, combined with avoidance of methane from enteric fermentation in ruminants (cows, sheep, etc.), results in dramatically lower emissions for plant-based diets.

Shifting dietary behavior via policy can be politically difficult, but alongside reducing GHG emissions, a desire to improve public health may provide another justification. Studies have found evidence linking consumption of red meat, especially processed red meat, with increased mortality. The United States has the highest per-capita meat consumption of any country, at 99 kg/person/year. Japan, which has the longest life expectancy of any country, consumes just 36 kg/person/year. Policymakers may consider science-based public education campaigns about the health benefits of reducing red meat consumption.

It is also possible to reduce animal consumption through financial incentives, such as by redirecting subsidies currently paid to farmers who raise animals or feed crops to farmers growing fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods for human consumption. A tax on animal meat, akin to taxes on tobacco and other products with negative externalities, is another viable approach.

For a more detailed discussion, see the applicable chapter of Designing Climate Solutions, our book on smart energy and climate policy design.