Food systems are responsible for an estimated one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s an enormous figure that could be significantly tackled by changing what we purchase, and how we eat at the household level. Now, two new separate studies have homed in on this potential, each identifying very distinctive ways to do that.
The first suggests that if we tap into young children’s innate empathy for animals, we could set the course for more plant-based consumption in their adult lives. Meanwhile, the second finds that by making a series of small, practical changes beyond diet alone, 71% of households could significantly reduce their carbon footprint.
Both studies focus on the United States. In the first, published in The Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers revealed that American children routinely misidentified meat as plant-based, and also described animals as ‘not OK to eat’—despite these products being a regular part of the national diet.
Working with 176 kids aged four to seven, the researchers gave each a list of foods to categorize, which included hotdogs, burgers, chicken nuggets, fruit, and vegetables. In the first survey, they showed that children were more likely to misidentify meat products—describing them as plant-based—than they were to get the identity of fruits and vegetables wrong. In fact, with the exception of milk, at least 30% of children misidentified all animal-based products, including bacon, hotdogs, hamburgers, and chicken nuggets, as plant-based foods.
In the second survey, children were tasked with defining a list of 14 items—including bacon, grass, dogs, and dirt—as ‘OK’ or ‘not OK’ to eat. Here, a majority defined almost all commonly-consumed meat products in the list as ‘not OK to eat’. Notably, over 70% of children said pigs and cows weren’t acceptable as food, while a further 65% said chickens weren’t edible either. (One exception here was fish, which most children said was fine to consume.)
These results reveal a clear disconnect between the diets that American children commonly consume, and their apparent loyalty to animals. This might partly arise from the mismatch between the names of animals and the meat they produce (i.e. children may not grasp that a ‘cow’ produces ‘beef’). But this also links up with what the researchers think is the larger cause of this disconnect, which is that parents or teachers may be miseducating children about, or perhaps obfuscating, the true origins of their food.
This seems to reflect the complicated mores of a society that generally promotes kindness to animals, but where meat is also a prevailing feature in most diets. Perhaps the absence of this culinary education signals adults’ own internal conflict over eating meat, or a desire to protect children from the harsh realities of the world, the researchers suggest. Either way, they were more interested in the potential the study highlighted to leverage children’s evident allegiance to animals, for the greater environmental good.
This was especially true for very young children, who demonstrated the strongest assumptions in the cohort that animals aren’t to be consumed. “The current study suggests that children eat meat unknowingly, and perhaps in violation of a bias against animals as a food source,” the researchers explain.
But perhaps if we intervene early on by giving young kids more information about the origins of their food, their beliefs might shift their dietary preferences towards more plant-based foods at this crucial stage—before those patterns of meat consumption become hard-baked in adulthood, the research team says. “Childhood may therefore represent a unique opportunity during which to establish lifelong habits that help to mitigate climate change,” they write; “Youth climate activism may begin at the dinner table.”
Yet, as this first study suggests, getting adults to drastically change what they eat may be a larger challenge. This is something the second study grappled with: it looked beyond big dietary changes alone to discover other ways for people to bring down emissions through their food.
Writing in Environmental Science & Technology, the researchers carried out a full life cycle analysis of the 83 common grocery items purchased over the course of a year by over 57,000 households in the United States. This highly detailed analysis highlighted the hotspots of carbon emissions along the supply chain, and revealed where the biggest opportunities were to bring that footprint down.
This led to a series of small, practical steps that households could take—beyond simply making a dramatic transition to vegetarian and vegan diets. Chief among these was that if smaller one- to two-person households limited what they bought to reduce over-purchasing and waste, this would achieve a striking two-thirds of the emissions reduction potential that the study calculated was possible.
Another hotspot the researcher highlights is the large carbon footprint generated by ready-made foods, snacks, and drinks, which generally also have lower nutritional benefits, and are purchased in volumes that give them a large footprint. They state in the study that if households reduced their intake of ready-made foods, this could reduce their carbon footprint by a potentially larger share than would be achieved even by switching to a plant-based diet.
Finally, reconfiguring diets to contain more ‘recommended’ foods such as grains and vegetables, in place of ‘unrecommended’ foods like meat and dairy, could reduce household footprints by up to 29%. Overall, these options for footprint reduction could enable 71% of US households to significantly bring down their carbon footprint, the researchers showed.
What both studies reveal is that households can be a focus of environmental change, and there are many routes to achieving it—whether through educating children about the origins of their food, or making small changes to what we buy.
Study 1: Hahn et. al. “Children are unsuspecting meat eaters: An opportunity to address climate change.” Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2021.
Study 2: Cai et. al. “Large-Scale Microanalysis of U.S. Household Food Carbon Footprints and Reduction Potentials.” Environmental Science & Technology. 2021.
Image: Joshua Rappeneker via Flickr