The idea of No Red October—a PopSci initiative where we urge readers to cut out red meat for the month of October—was never to make a massive impact. Would it make a dent in our collective carbon footprint if everyone in the country took 31 days off from eating red meat? Absolutely. Is that the most effective diet plan for reducing our agricultural emissions? No.
But we’re a bunch of data nerds at heart, so for our third annual #NoRedOctober we wanted to find out just how much of an impact we’d have—and how much of an impact you could have.
There are plenty of estimates of how dietary changes could influence carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, but we used the findings of a recent study that evaluated individual countries for a more thorough assesment of the link between climate and nutrition around the world.
Here’s how much carbon dioxide you—yes, you—could save in a single year by changing your diet.
Infographic by Sara Chodosh
No one should be surprised to see No Red October at the bottom of the impact list—it’s 31 days without red meat, which is even less than if you just took one day per week to skip burgers and steaks. But we mean for #NoRedOctober to serve as more of an introduction or a recalibration; according to one 2018 study, just one-fifth of Americans eat so much meat that they’re responsible for half the country’s food-based emissions. If you’re close to that end of the spectrum, avoiding red meat for an entire month is a serious challenge and a commendable effort, and a great first step in being more conscious about your consumption in a typical month. Ideally, a break from red meat will make it easier to graduate into the higher echelons of eco-friendly diets.
Though one month or day per week would only cut about three to four percent of the average person’s food-related emissions, cutting red meat entirely would chop your footprint nearly in half (obviously there’s a wide margin of potential meat consumption between skipping it once a week and going totally beefless, so limiting yourself to one or two dishes with red meat a week is a great step as well). Lacto-ovo vegetarians, meaning those who refrain from meat-eating but still nosh on dairy and eggs, beat out the carbon emissions of folks who only cut dairy from their diets—but only just.
Going two-thirds vegan (only eating animal products in one-third of your meals) gives you an environmental edge over the purely red-meat-less. But the real difference comes when you cut animal products entirely; those eating only low food chain animals (think small fishes and insects) or who go totally vegan end up eliminating more than 2,866 pounds of food-related CO2 annually, which tips the scales over the 80 percent threshold. Of course, not everyone has the desire or the means to eat a completely plant-based diet, and it’s not the healthiest choice for everyone. But most Americans could have a positive impact on their health and the planet if they worked on eating fewer animal products, or at least minimizing beef intake.
So don’t think of No Red October as the end goal. Think of it as an exercise in learning how to consume fewer cow-centric products and paying more attention to the carbon footprint of your burger. Make a bean stew! Enjoy eggs all day! There are so many ways to cook with ingredients that aren’t steak or beef—you can even check out Saveur’s best suggestions here—and you’ll be healthier for it to boot. Embrace the change. Have fun with it. The planet is counting on you.