Protecting Human and Planetary Health Requires Strong Policies: 50by40 in Conversation with NRDC

Published 22/12/2020

Ensuring the protection of the health of humans and the planet is vital in achieving sustainable development goals. However, without appropriate legal and regulatory actions from respective governments, this may be hard to realise. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is one such organisation working to ensure that relevant laws are enshrined in the USA to protect the people and the environment. 

NRDC works with three million members and online activists, hundreds of scientists, attorneys, and advocates. Their teams of top-notch lawyers, scientists, and policy experts help to write and pass evidence-based environmental laws, which they then enforce through several litigations.

In this blogpost, 50by40 speaks with Sujatha Bergen, the Director of Health Campaigns at NRDC, about the work the organisation does within the food systems space, focusing on meat reduction.

50by40: What does your organisation do around climate change and meat reduction?

Sujatha: We, at NRDC, see a strong connection between meat consumption and greenhouse gases. According to the United Nations, over 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions are tied to livestock production, and that’s projected to increase dramatically over the next 50 years. If we want to hit the Climate target for the Paris agreements and if we are going to prevent the worst impact of climate change, we will need to reduce consumption and production of industrially produced meat. That’s one of the aspects that NRDC focuses on, and we tackle the problem in a few different ways. 

We work in the policy arena to push for policies from the federal to the local levels to encourage a reduction in industrially produced meat. For instance, at the national level, we are working to convince the Centre for Disease Control and other agencies to include, as a requirement, that the menus of food provided for federal agencies be low-carbon and climate-friendly. At the state level, we have supported legislation that would require states to start quantifying what the emissions are from the food that people purchase in all sales circles. We also work in the corporate sphere to change corporate policy to reduce the impact of the menus served by large food companies.

50BY40: Could you talk more about your work in the corporate sphere? Your organisation often employs a strategy of pressurising food service providers. Why did you choose this strategy, and how successful has it been?

Sujatha: We think the foodservice industry is significant in the United States for a few different reasons. One is that foodservice companies are huge sellers of meals, and they have millions of customers. So they have a huge impact. Also, it’s a very consolidated industry; 76% of the market is dominated by three companies, which means if you can get the three companies to shift, you can impact all the industry itself. Those companies serve food in cafeterias, hospitals, elementary schools, and colleges; therefore, they play a massive role in shaping dietary habits. If they are serving more plant-based options: less red meat, less climate intensive food, etc., that means that people get exposed to those kinds of menus at their workplace or in schools, and they can help shape what they are used to eating. Several of the companies also have global reach and work in Europe and other places, so what we do in the US could impact the globe.

We make sure that the companies know that their clients want this change, especially on college campuses. We mobilise students to weigh in with these companies directly. But we also advocate directly to them.

I would say this strategy has been successful. Sodexo, one of the largest meal companies, has set a goal to reduce their overall greenhouse gas emissions. They now recognise that reducing their approaches to animal products is a significant part of meeting that goal. Aramark and Compass now talk about meat reduction on their websites too. They haven’t gotten to the point where they set goals which is what we want them to do, but they now know they have to address it, so we are making progress. We want them to set goals because it is only by setting goals can we drive actual change and hold them accountable. By keeping the pressure up, we will be able to do that. 

We are also urging universities across the United States to consider climate in the decisions to purchase campus food. We recently issued a letter to 3,000 college presidents with a review highlighting differences in corporate food service company policies to help campus cafeteria supply contracts meet university targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

50by40: You wrote an article on the link between the food industry and forest fires. Can you elaborate on this?

Sujatha: There is a huge link between meat and the forest fires in the Amazon. Brazil is the largest producer and exporter of beef in the whole world, and much of this beef is raised in places where there used to be rainforest. Nearly 50% of Brazilian livestock are raised in fields where there used to be rainforests so there is an active effort to replace rainforest land with land for cattle and much of the beef goes to China and Europe. In addition to beef, there are a lot of soy crops grown in the rainforest and a lot of that is going to Europe as well to feed chickens. So apparently the United Kingdom imports more than 3 million tonnes of soy every year from Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and most of it they feed to factory farm animals, mostly chickens. Therefore, increasing demand for chicken is also fuelling the forest fires. So if we can reduce worldwide demand for both cattle and chicken that would make a big impact on saving the amazon and other rainforests.

“Forest fire” by Ervins Strauhmanis. LIC: CC BY 2.0

50by40: What are the specific things you think should be done as solutions to these challenges?

Sujatha: I think the most important thing is not buying the meat that indirectly leads to the destruction of delicate, natural jewels like the Amazon. This involves the consumers, the stores, the investors and multinational companies which drive the supply chain. For instance, the likes of JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, have been linked to lots of corruption and deforestation in the Amazon. Companies that are responsible for this destruction should also be held accountable. Mainstream investors should not be investing in these companies and providing them with the money to do this destruction. Governments also have a role to play. Brazil dietary guidelines recommend reduced red meat consumption. That’s a good positive step, but the Brazilian government needs to protect places like the Amazon from illegal deforestation. It needs to make sure that companies that profit from illegal deforestation are held accountable, and the government also needs to shift their economy away from reliance on massive production of animal products. The US and Europe again shouldn’t buy products that are linked to illegal deforestation. They should also be working to reduce their demand for meat overall. All these combined will have a big impact.

50by40: Outside meat reduction, what other areas does NRDC engage within the food systems space?

Sujatha: We work on other food issues. We work to reduce the overuse of antibiotics in food supply because that’s helping fuel the development of resistant bacteria. We also work to help communities fight back against pollution from factory farming. Communities in the United States and across the world are negatively impacted by huge factory farms that produce thousands of animals. Those farms produce enormous amounts of air pollution and water pollution, which are terrible for the surrounding communities, so we help them fight back against those impacts. We also work to make farming itself more of a solution than the problem through climate-friendly practices like treating the soil better, using more natural crops as fertilisers rather than artificial chemicals. We also work to reduce food waste. About 40% of food produced in the United States is wasted.

50by40: Can you talk about one of the impacts your organisation has had over these years?

Sujatha: When it comes to meat reduction, I think the most important thing that we have done is to add our voice to the coalition of groups that are working to reduce demand for meat. That’s what I am most excited about. So by drawing a connection between industrial meat production and fires in the Amazon, for example, or other major environmental challenges that we face, I think we are playing a significant role there. As a whole, we have been leaders in passing some of the most important environmental laws in the USA like the clean water act, clean air act. We have also been successful in moving lots of companies to adopt better policies, to eliminate toxic products from their supply chain, and to clean up their pollution, among others.

50by40: What is the vision of your organisation for the food system post-covid?

Sujatha: Post-covid, we envision a food system that is sustainable, healthy, equitable and resilient. A food system that can survive and does not deplete the resources on the planet, that provides people with access to healthy food. It doesn’t exploit workers and labour and also can withstand a pandemic like the COVID-19 pandemic.