Of all the food we eat, meat is among the most greenhouse gas–intensive to produce. Livestock production is responsible for nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, red meat from ruminant animals (cows, sheep, and goats) and pigs is a major source of that pollution. Growing and fertilizing crops to feed these animals is energy and greenhouse gas intensive, and the multichambered digestive systems of ruminant animals cause them to release large amounts of methane. Pound for pound, producing beef results in about five times more greenhouse gas pollution than producing chicken, and 34 times more than growing legumes like beans and lentils.
Eating too much red meat is also harmful to our health. Recent ﬁndings by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. government–appointed Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee highlight the strong connection between high red meat consumption and problems including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The scientiﬁc evidence is so solid that the WHO recently classiﬁed the consumption of red meat as a probable human carcinogen.
The solution is to eat less red meat and more plants. If Americans ate just a quarter pound less beef each week for a year, it would be like taking 10 million cars off the road for one year. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health estimate that substituting one serving of red meat per day with another type of food—like fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, or whole grains—could lower the risk of mortality by 7 percent to 19 percent.
The good news is that plant-forward menus are becoming increasingly mainstream, and millennial consumers in particular are embracing them. In the National Restaurant Association’s 2016 “What’s Hot” survey, nearly 60 percent of professional chefs listed meatless items among the top culinary trends. And half of consumers between the ages of 25 and 34 are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers healthy options. Food companies that do not respond to these trends by proactively offering plant-forward menu options risk losing market share.
The three largest food service companies in the United States collectively operate tens of thousands of dining sites and rank second, third, and fourth in meals sold in this country. (McDonald’s ranks first). Compass Group, the top food service provider, has already publicly committed to purchasing less red meat and more vegetables over the next three years. NRDC believes food service companies can play a powerful role in creating healthier diets. We are encouraging leading food service providers and venue managers to shift away from red meat–heavy menus and toward more plant-based offerings.