Setting the Table for a Climate-Conscious Diet

By Fiona McBride

Daily headlines reprimand shoppers for perpetuating climate change, encouraging them to tackle global warming by replacing one supermarket purchase with another or adopting reusable straws. While fighting climate change will require transformative shifts in consumption patterns, harping on personal choice obscures a significant piece of the solution: policy.

Relying on individuals to single-handedly counteract the diet-driven consequences of climate change shifts the burden off the institutions that govern our choices. The solution isn’t just another dairy-free milk, it’s a government that stops subsidizing a $38.1 billion dairy industry and starts supporting sustainable produce growers. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines stipulate that fruits and vegetables make up half our plate, but the country isn’t growing enough produce to meet this aspirational demand. 40% of our food goes to waste. Yet the Farm Bill perpetuates conservation policies that largely bolster industrial agriculture, without supporting farmers in dealing with surplus crop. Each of us has a role to play in adjusting our choices to a changing environment; but government must act in tandem to incentivize rather than undermine these shifts.

Other countries outpace us. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy only finances farms meeting stringent environmental criteria; Mexico levied a junk food tax, and it’s working. As we anticipate the 2020 election and debate bills like the Green New Deal, American legislators must follow suit, spearheading policies that drive swift change and bridge the gap between individual and joint action, paving the way for a collectively climate-conscious diet.

The argument that poor individual choices are the main causes of a deteriorating climate, and that shifting them is the key solution, ignores how our decisions are structured by a built environment that is hostile to climate-friendly lifestyles. This is not accidental, but rather the result of corporate lobbying and entrenched government support. The notion that people make purchases based purely on personal preference, and are the central driver of production decisions, relies on an inaccurate portrayal of our economic system. Examining food systems pulls back the curtain.  

Take meat for instance. Scientific consensus indicates meat production contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, yet the national appetite for it is strong. In 2018, American farms produced more than 100 billion pounds of meat. Why is demand so high? For American shoppers, meat is artificially cheap due to billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies financing meat farms and the grain producers they rely on for feed. Meanwhile, USDA designates fruits and vegetables as Specialty Crops, disbursing only 3% of total farm supports and insurance to produce growers. Determining individual preferences for meat is difficult when the shopping experience privileges one product over the other. It’s reasonable to assume that shoppers’ express preferences through the market, but agricultural subsidies didn’t originate from increased consumer demand for meat, dairy, and processed foods; they were developed as a result of national security concerns during the WWII era. Policy produced warped consumption behaviors, and these choices must be interpreted within the environment that generated them.

The individual choice frame also overlooks how inequitable food policies, corporate marketing decisions, and localized food environments target low-income people of color in a manner that makes it even harder for them to make the climate-friendly choices. Twelve percent of Americans are food insecure, struggling to afford food at all, let alone plant-based, low-waste options. Blaming under-served people, while making actual choice difficult, deflects blame from those with power to make choice possible. It’s even more suspect given that these families also bear the most burden of industrial farm pollution and the environmental crisis more generally.

A number of policy levers can productively address the role that food plays in climate change without falling into the individual choice trap. Subsidies are the lowest hanging fruit. The government can incentivize fruit and vegetable consumption by shifting agricultural supports away from industrial commodities, meat, and dairy production towards produce, with expanded access for small and mid-sized farms which currently make up a low percentage of the subsidy program. Reforming conservation programs in Title II of the Farm Bill to support regenerative and organic farms over industrial facilities would also facilitate shoppers in making better purchases.

For a more comprehensive list of opportunities that link food policy reforms to climate solutions, consider this detailed letter from hundreds of organizations on integrating food into the Green New Deal. The great news about many of these recommendations? They tend to also benefit public health, animal welfare, and local economies.

Regulations that target food choices often set off alarms for conservative lawmakers and voters, raising concerns about a ballooning ‘Nanny State,’ but this overlooks just how many food policies already define our status quo as eaters, and how our national diet currently contributes to two of the most significant crises of our time: climate change and the diet-related disease epidemic. Where government has the opportunity to curb these negative outcomes, and through policy no more invasive than existing measures, it should.

As policy shifts, we can be more responsive as individuals to the changing demands of our threatened climate. The change we seek will emerge not from independent action, but from an ecosystem of personal, collective, and institutional transformations.

Fiona McBride is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a Senior Editor of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.


For a more detailed analysis of how our individual choices interact with structural change and environmental outcomes within and beyond the food landscape, check out MPP student Reem Rayef’s two-part Carbon Footprinting podcast: