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By Sabrina Scull

Earth Day Network (EDN) and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) recently released a new research report, Climate Change and the American Diet, which looks at Americans’ perceptions and attitudes of plant-based diets and climate change. The research release was hosted at the National Press Club, featuring an engaging panel discussion and a fully plant-based breakfast – an unconventional request of the Club’s caterers, but one that they embraced wholeheartedly.

Many of us in the environmental community, especially those interested in climate issues or food sustainability, are familiar with the issues surrounding our food systems and how they exacerbate climate change. The report authors were interested in learning more about views outside of this echo chamber, looking to draw from a wider representation of American viewpoints. Climate Change and the American Diet analyzes data from surveys of 1,043 American adults of various backgrounds (ages 18 and older). The vast majority of survey participants (94%) described themselves as neither vegetarian or vegan. However, at the same time, 94% expressed a willingness to eat more fruits and vegetables and consume a more plant-rich diet. On top of that, more than half shared a willingness to eat less red meat.

In addition, more than half (51%) of those surveyed indicated that they would be interested in eating more plant-based foods if they were better able to understand the impacts of their food choices on the environment. The results also showed that 70% rarely or never talk about this issue with their friends or family. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed reported that no one had ever asked them to eat more plant-based foods, and more than half indicated that they rarely or never hear about the topic in the media.

The report also shared common barriers to adopting a more plant-based diet, including a lack of knowledge about which plant-based foods to buy, and most importantly – price. Just under half of the survey respondents believe that a meal with a plant-based main course is more expensive than a meal with a meat-based main course. Accordingly, 63% of Americans shared that they would choose more plant-based foods over meat if they cost less. 

It is a common misconception that plant-based foods cost more than their meat counterparts. Indeed, as YPCCC Director Anthony Leiserowitz explained during the research release: “Most plant-based foods are actually cheaper.” This is especially the case with protein sources such as beans, lentils, nuts and even tofu. 

Regardless, it is important to keep in mind that many people in this country struggle with food insecurity and their dietary choices are limited by distance to grocery stores and access to fresh fruits and vegetables. We must amp up the conversation about tackling this inequality and hold our elected officials responsible for breaking down barriers to healthy eating.

There is clearly a great opportunity to share resources with the general public to increase their understanding of how their food choices impact our planet. Overall, it is apparent that we need better communication about these issues, and fast, as our current food consumption is unsustainable in this growing world. 

The first step as environmental advocates is to look critically at our dietary choices and think about how we can eat better for the planet. From there, we can examine why we hold certain perceptions and preferences, then have more honest and open conversations about the impact our food choices.

The Foodprints for the Future campaign at Earth Day Network is working to create widespread awareness of how our food choices impact the environment. We encourage individuals and institutions to #eatmoreplants to help fight climate change with diet change. 

Please visit the Earth Day Network website for more information about the research and to download the full report.

Sabrina Scull is the Food and Environment Campaign Coordinator at Earth Day Network. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies – Ecosystems from Binghamton University and a Master of Science in Environmental Conservation from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sabrina enjoys yoga, cooking delicious vegan food, and making music, particularly with her a cappella group, Makela.

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