Move over, vegetarian; the "climatarian" is now taking the smug seat at the dinner table. This new term is a convergence of two political crusades: climate change and the food movement. It landed on the New York Times list of the top new food words for 2015. Here's how the Grey Lady defined the term:
climatarian (n.) A diet whose primary goal is to reverse climate change. This includes eating locally produced food (to reduce energy spent in transportation), choosing pork and poultry instead of beef and lamb (to limit gas emissions), and using every part of ingredients (apple cores, cheese rinds, etc.) to limit food waste.
Climate activists are ratcheting up their attempt to blame global warming on food production and consumption, targeting the meat industry in particular. As the public tunes out stale climate-change rhetoric, climatarians hope to turn attention away from your SUV and onto your dinner plate.
They have plenty of help to make their case. A dire report released last November by Chatham House at the Royal Institute of International Affairs claims that the livestock sector is responsible for emitting about 15 percent of greenhouse gases, which "is equivalent to tailpipe emissions from all the world's vehicles." The United Nations pegs the figure even higher, at about 25 percent. They want us to think that if we cut out meat, we'd dramatically reduce emissions.
A specious report from the cancer agency of the World Health Organization last year warned that processed and red meat are carcinogenic. The group's goal is to foment public fear about America's favorite protein, despite a dearth of scientific evidence to back it up.
And with worldwide beef demand expected to rise more than 75 percent by 2050, governments and environmental groups are working hard to persuade people that meat is not only bad for your health, it's also bad for the planet.
In other words, meat is the new coal.
Climate-change activists have found ideological soulmates in America's culinary elites. They want every meal to be a political statement on topics such as farm workers' rights or the carbon footprint of your family's dinner. Most advocate a plant-based diet, following the advice of food activist Michael Pollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Regardless of science to the contrary, these activists promote the organic, local, non-GMO diet as the most eco-friendly. Last year, the committee charged with drafting a scientific report to update federally mandated dietary guidelines tried to make "sustainability" a factor in telling American how to eat; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack scuttled that effort after Congress made clear that the government should base its advice solely on nutrition, and nothing else.
Climatarians were up in arms earlier this month when the Obama administration released the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, which did not recommend further limits to red-meat consumption. Media coverage proclaimed that the guidelines were a "win" for the meat industry and its powerful lobbyists. There was no shortage of doomsday rhetoric denouncing the report. Some activists insisted that today's hamburger will cause tomorrow's global apocalypse. Dr. David Katz, president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, set the tone:
We know sustainability is a concern. We only have two choices: honor that concern, or dismiss it — and knowingly eat at the expense of those to follow us. If the latter, then these cannot be dietary guidelines for Americans, but rather dietary guidelines for some Americans at the expense of their children, and grandchildren.
But as with the last half-century's advice that we should avoid saturated fat — advice that recently unraveled – science doesn't back up the notion that a plant-based diet is environmentally superior. New research from Carnegie-Mellon University found that the USDA-recommended diet of "more fruits, vegetables, dairy, and seafood is more harmful to the environment because those foods have relatively high resource uses and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per calorie." The study examined impacts on energy use, water footprint, and total greenhouse-gas emissions. The production and distribution of "healthier" foods increased the environmental impact in all three categories: Energy use increased by 38 percent, water use by 10 percent, and GHG emissions by 6 percent. "Eating lettuce is over three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon," CMU professor Paul Fischbeck reported in the study. "Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think. Eggplant, celery and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken."
Nor is organic farming better for the environment. An analysis of USDA data by agricultural scientist Steve Savage shows huge yield gaps between conventional and organic crops. In comparing the two farming methods, yields were lower in 84 percent of organic crops. For fruit crops, the yield for organic strawberries was 61 percent lower than conventional strawberries, 49 percent lower for organic grapes, and 26 percent lower for organic oranges. For vegetables, yields for organic spinach were 71 percent lower, 49 percent lower for organic carrots, and 30 percent lower for organic potatoes. "To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land," Savage said. "That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states or nearly twice as much as all the urban land in the nation."
The science simply doesn't support either the nutritional or environmental claims of climatarians who want to rig our diets for political purposes. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern during legislative hearings last year; Congress is now asking for a top-down review of the USDA dietary guidelines, which have never been subject to peer reviews. The recently passed budget bill included $1 million set aside to conduct such a study. "Questions have been raised about the scientific integrity of the process in developing the dietary guidelines and whether balanced nutritional information is reaching the public," lawmakers wrote when proposing the study. "The entire process used to formulate and establish the guidelines needs to be reviewed before future guidelines are issued."
— Julie Kelly is a food-policy writer in Orland Park, Ill., and a contributing author to the Genetic Literacy Project and the Huffington Post. Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter @JeffAStier.