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September 7, 2021

8 minutes read

UN Scientists Sound Alarm: Change What is on Your Plate

United Nations scientists warn that a climate catastrophe is coming, and a leaked UN document urges a shift to plant-based proteins as a strategy to stave off the most dire scenarios.

Read on to learn about political, institutional, and individual remedies already underway. Though it can feel like actions of an individual, institution, or state do not matter, when it comes to climate change, the opposite is true. Every bit of climate change mitigated matters, so every meal matters.

“Code red for humanity”

Released last month, part one of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) sixth report (AR6) pulls together findings from more than 14 thousand peer-reviewed studies. In the strongest language the IPCC has ever used, and for the first time, the IPCC stated that it is “unequivocal” that humans have caused “widespread and rapid” changes to ocean, land, and atmospheric temperatures, and that many of these changes are “irreversible.”

The report says that because climate change is cumulative, we will see unavoidable intensification over the next 30 years. That is, even if the world dramatically cut emissions starting today, a hotter future is certain. In all scenarios, by “the early 2030s,” average global temperatures will rise 1.5°C over preindustrial levels.

That kind of temperature change may not sound like much, but it brings with it cataclysms and catastrophes. As the New York Times explained upon the release of the report,

“At 1.5 degrees of warming, scientists have found … Nearly 1 billion people worldwide could swelter in more frequent life-threatening heat waves. Hundreds of millions more would struggle for water because of severe droughts. Some animal and plant species alive today will be gone. Coral reefs, which sustain fisheries for large swaths of the globe, will suffer more frequent mass die-offs.”1

Unless we dramatically cut emissions, we can expect additional degrees of warming over 1.5°C as the century progresses, bringing more wildfires, floods, rising sea levels, and animal and plant extinctions.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres says that AR6 is nothing less than “a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable.”2

Humanity must act decisively, now, if we are to limit average global temperature rise to just 1.5 degrees. Thankfully, the report states, there is still time to act.

Leaked UN report urges switch to plant-based protein

Not scheduled for public release before March 2022, the leaked third section of AR6 focuses on ways to reduce human impacts to the climate. It reads in part, “A shift to diets with a higher share of plant-based protein in regions with excess consumption of calories and animal-source food can lead to substantial reductions in emissions, while also providing health benefits …”3

The recommended shift to plant-based proteins builds on a 2019 IPCC special report that stated that plant-based and sustainably produced animal-sourced food “present major opportunities for [climate] adaptation and mitigation.”4

This is because of industrial animal-sourced food’s disproportionate impact on climate. For example, in 2018 Oxford University researchers published in the journal Science a study of nearly 40,000 farms in 119 countries that found “meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy use ~83 percent of the world’s farmland and contribute 56 to 58 percent of food’s different [greenhouse gas] emissions, despite providing only 37 percent of our protein and 18 percent of our calories.”5

According to AR6, “strong, rapid, and sustained reductions” in methane emissions are critical if we are to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C and thereby prevent the worst climate scenarios. This is no surprise: over the first 20 years after methane is emitted, it is over 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Anthropogenic methane is the cause of more than 25 percent of today’s global warming.6 Meat and dairy production is the largest source of human-caused methane, from enteric fermentation (a digestive process of ruminants like cattle) and manure emissions.7 In fact, if cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.8 9

Following the release of the 2019 IPCC report, Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist who co-chairs the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, said,  “We don’t want to tell people what to eat, but it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”10

The political and personal: every change matters

Some US politicians have put forward policy options that take seriously industrial animal agriculture’s contributions to the climate catastrophe.

In July 2021, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA) reintroduced the Farm System Reform Act (FSRA), which would place an immediate moratorium (pause) on construction of new and expanded large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and phase out the largest CAFOs by 2040.11 The Act is the boldest vision for American agriculture that we have ever seen put forward on a national policy stage. Federal legislation related to animal farming more typically reflects the vision of a small number of corporate meat companies’ lobbyists and advocates in government. In contrast, the vision outlined in the FSRA contains several first steps toward Farm Forward’s own vision for agriculture—ending factory farming, leveling the playing field for independent farmers, and raising fewer animals for food.

Another example: In June 2021, Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) and Jamaal Bowman, Ed.D (D-NY) introduced the “Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act,” which would fund healthier, climate friendly, culturally appropriate plant-based entrée options for public school students. “At the same time as we invest urgently in the transition to renewable energy, we must build sustainable food systems at every level of our society—and our public education system can lead the way,” said Rep. Bowman.12 He noted that the bill would advance food justice in marginalized communities and support local farmers of color while fighting the climate crisis with healthier, plant-based food. The bill would fund $10 million in grants for a voluntary pilot program to help school districts address challenges in transitioning to plant-based meals, such as lack of culinary training.13

While politicians debate, it is incumbent that individuals and institutions take their own steps to mitigate climate change. Farm Forward has long supported efforts to reduce meat consumption, and recently began promoting DefaultVeg, an approach to dining which uses simple behavioral “nudges” to encourage institutional and home diners to choose more climate-friendly foods, without restricting anyone’s choices. The use of plant-forward defaults is enormously effective: for example, making plant-based meals the default menu option while giving people the choice to opt in to meals with animal products (an approach called “Greener by Default”) can increase the selection of more sustainable plant-based options by an average of 60 percentage points and up to 80 percentage points. Dozens of institutions are adopting plant-based nudges, from Harvard recommending them in its catering guide to organizations like Climate Nexus and the American Lung Association committing to use them for their events.

Sometimes when facing a problem as vast in scope as the climate crisis, it feels like actions of an individual, institution, and even a city, state or nation do not matter. In fact, when it comes to climate change, the opposite is true. Every fraction of a degree of temperature rise in the decades ahead will have consequences, particularly for the world’s most vulnerable. So every action matters, every bit of climate change mitigated matters, and every meal matters.

And they matter, too, because individual and institutional decisions often ramify: they influence and motivate other individuals and institutions, redefining what is “normal” and even eventually leading to political change. Decisions made for dining room tables, offices, schools, hospitals, and university departments become the social norms that change society and eventually change politics.

The good news embedded in the IPCC report is that there is still time to act to avoid the worst scenarios. No one person, institution, or country can do everything. Still, we can each do something. Do what you can, knowing that every day, more and more people are doing the same. And please donate to Farm Forward so that we can keep this good work going.

Header image: Food photo created by freepik – 

Last Updated

September 7, 2021



Brad Plumer and Henry Fountain, “A Hotter Future Is Certain, Climate Panel Warns. But How Hot Is Up to Us,” New York Times, published August 9, 2021, updated August 31, 2021. Accessible here.


“IPCC Report: ‘Code Red” for Human Driven Global Heating, Warns UN Chief,” UN News, United Nations, August 9, 2021. Accessible here


The document was leaked because its authors were concerned that world policymakers might water down their findings before they could be published, which various governments have the right to do in the “Summary for Policymakers.” Read more here.


Quiren Schiermeier, “Eat Less Meat: UN Climate-Change Report Calls for Change to Human Diet,” Nature, August 8, 2019. Accessible here.


J. Poore and T. Nemecek, “Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts through Producers and Consumers,” Science, Vol 360, Issue 6392, June 1 2018, pp. 987-992. Accessible here.


Cheryl Katz, “The search for the world’s largest methane sources,” BBC Future Planet, August 5, 2021. Accessible here.


“Overview of Greenhouse Gases,” US Environmental Protection Agency. Accessible here.


“Plant-Rich Diet,” Project Drawdown. Accessible here.


Sarah Kaplan, “Are my hamburgers hurting the planet?”, Washington Post, November 18, 2019. Accessible here.


Quiren Schiermeier, “Eat Less Meat: UN Climate-Change Report Calls for Change to Human Diet,” Nature, August 8, 2019. Accessible here


Senator Booker and Congressman Khanna weren’t going it alone, either; original cosponsors of the 2021 Farm System Reform Act include Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the Senate, and Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Mark Pocan (D.Wis.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), in the House of Representatives. 


“Velazquez & Bowman Introduce Legislation to Provide Plant-Based Entrees in Schools.” Press release. Accessible here.


Theresa Lieb, “How school food can serve a climate solution,” GreenBiz, July 9, 2021. Accessible here