Beyond salad and fries: there are more ways to eat your vegetables now — and help the planet too
Eat more vegetables. You probably got that a lot as a kid. Well, now climate scientists say there's more reason than ever to follow that advice. Meat and dairy account for more than 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
So if the world is going to limit warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius, there will have to be a seismic shift in what people eat and how it's produced. That's giving rise to plant-based diets that are part of a social change movement.
It's dinner time at Curbside Comforts, a roadside takeout restaurant in Gorham, Maine, and customers are lining up to place orders for hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, and crispy chikn and bakon wraps. (That's bacon with a K.) There's also soft-serve ice cream on the menu.
And everything, every last ingredient — even the saucy nachos with sour cream — is vegan, meaning no meat, dairy or animal-based products are used.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
"I was very thrilled when they opened because I hadn't had soft serve ice cream in a really long time," says Angela Bell, who has sworn off all animal products for about 15 years out of an ethical concern for animals and their treatment.
At first, Bell says, there were only a few vegan items in the grocery store and eating out often meant ordering the same thing, "The vegan staple: salad and fries."
Now, Bell says it's easier to find vegan friendly dishes and products at restaurants and on store shelves. Plant-based foods broke a record $8 billion in retail sales in the U.S. last year, even as inflation cooled spending patterns.
That's according to the Plant-Based Foods Association, which also found that nearly half of all restaurants are offering vegetarian or vegan items on their menus.
And it's all being driven by consumer demand.
In downtown Portland, a popular watering hole known as 3 Dollar Dewey's offers vegan and vegetarian menu items such as barbecue jackfruit sandwiches and tacos along with traditional pub fare like pizza and burgers. Owner Joe Christopher says sales have been so successful and the response from customers so positive that he and his partner plan to expand their plant-based menu.
"I'm a capitalist," Christopher says with a laugh. "But an environmentalist — pretty staunch — as well."
One thing Christopher is not is a vegan. But his longtime friend and business partner is, and so is a regional manager and a former chef. Recent surveys suggest at least 6% of Americans identify as vegan or as vegetarian — someone who avoids eating meat and fish but still consumes eggs or cheese. And when it comes to "flexitarians" — part-time vegetarians — that number is much higher, about 15% and as high as 47% for Americans aged 24-49.
"To be a full-time vegetarian is difficult. It's difficult. What I think is really doable for everybody is to reduce the amount of animal products that they eat," says Avery Yale Kamila, the vegan kitchen columnist for the Maine Sunday Telegram.
A longtime vegan herself, Kamila says the introduction to the marketplace of so many new products — Impossible and Beyond burgers, for example, and all the nut-based milks — are game changers.
"These plant-based meats, plant-based cheeses, plant-based milks, plant-based eggs...are the way forward because they are replacements. So, you don't have to give up anything. So, I think that's going to be the way forward. You know, nobody has to start eating a raw, vegan diet, no," Kamila says.
She says there are many strategies to reduce animal products.
"You can say, 'I'm going to eat breakfast and lunch vegetarian and then, you know, have some animal-based meat at dinner.' Or eat three or four days a week all plant-based meals and then the rest of the week whatever you can do. I also know people who, in their house, it's all vegetarian but when they eat out or with friends it's something else," Kamila says.
Kamila grew up on a small, organic farm in central Maine where her parents raised pigs and vegetables. Her grandfather also operated a dairy farm nearby. Spending time in both places shaped her thinking about how animals are treated and why.
As a young girl, she remembers taking part in a pig scramble at a fair. That's an event where piglets are released into an arena and children are sent chasing after them in front of a crowd of spectators. Kamila returned home that day with a piglet she named Fifi who lived in a pigpen with some other pigs on the farm. And then one day she wasn't there. Kamila recalls having meat served for dinner and asking her mother about it.
"And my mother said, 'Oh, yeah, that's your pig.' And, you know it really just kind of hit me, like that's what's on my plate. So, that was an eye-opening moment," she says.
But Kamila says of all the things she saw and heard, the one that haunts her most is the sound of mother cows on her grandfather's dairy farm moaning after their babies were taken from them within hours of their birth. Dairy cows must be made pregnant through insemination and give birth to at least one calf a year in order to produce milk.
"The males were sent either to another farm that had a veal operation, or they were just sent to the slaughterhouse. The females were sent up the street to my grandfather's heifer farm where they would be raised until they were ready to be inseminated, and then they got to go through the whole cycle. But the mothers would just grieve and you know, cows are social animals and they have feelings and I think about that a lot...It's a tough place on a dairy farm," Kamila says.
Studies show that cutting dairy and meat consumption is one of the best ways to reduce your impact on the planet, not just by reducing greenhouse gases but also land and water use.
For example, it takes 660 gallons of water or about 15 bathtubs full just to make one hamburger, according to the Water Footprint Calculator. And research from the University of Michigan and Tulane University found that replacing half of all animal-based foods with plant-based alternatives would reduce diet-related emissions in the U.S. by 35%.
Doreen Stabinsky, a professor of global environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic, says there's something else to consider:
"Large scale, industrial animal agriculture is seriously under threat from climate change. I don't actually see how we continue large scale industrial agriculture with rising temperatures, in particular, but rising temperatures and increasing drought and so impacts on water supply," Stabinsky says.
Stabinsky says extreme heat events could kill large numbers of cows at a time since it's unlikely they're going to be housed in air-conditioned barns. And droughts are happening in places where animals are produced, which is why she thinks the transformation to plant-based alternatives may be helped along.
"I'm talking about large scale feedlots in the Midwest, but also you know, corn and soy...the crops primarily grown to feed animals," Stabinsky says.
A vegetarian for several decades, Stabinsky says she's now almost completely vegan for climate reasons. In 2018 she co-authored a report that suggests a 50% reduction in consumption of animal-based foods will be necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change. That's roughly two five-ounce servings of meat per week, two glasses of milk and two four-ounce servings of cheese.
Back at Curbside Comforts, co-owner Suzanne Dawson says she has been blown away by the response of customers to her exclusively vegan takeout business. But Dawson says if there is going to be a massive shift toward plant-based food, the federal government will have to change the way it subsidizes animal agriculture.
"Plant-based items aren't subsidized and that's why our products tend to be a little bit more expensive," Dawson says. "And it's not about putting farmers out of business: vegetables still need to be farmed, too. Instead of growing soy to feed the cows or the pigs, how about we make it into food that humans can eat?"
It's part of the transformation scientists say is needed, and soon.
And the best way to make that happen? Vote, says Stabinsky, for the people and policies that make it a priority.