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Less meat, more potatoes? Some Idahoans are changing diet to reduce their impact on the planet

A close-up picture of a row of carrots sprouting from dark soil.
In a rapidly changing world, people’s views on plant-based diets are shifting. In Idaho, where veggies grow in abundance, vegan and vegetarian options are becoming more popular.

In a rapidly changing world, folks are changing their views on plant based diets, even in Idaho. Despite its red-blooded meat and potatoes reputation, Jenée Cyran said she didn’t find it difficult to be a vegetarian in the potato state.

While shopping at the Boise Co-op, she said Boise had great vegetarian and vegan restaurants.

“We're kind of fortunate to have really great local conditions for growing different produce,” she added, saying she also receives boxes of local fruit and vegetables through a Community Supported Agriculture group.

Cyran first became a vegetarian because high cholesterol runs in her family. She then learned more about how large-scale food production impacts the environment and animal welfare. Not eating meat became a way for her to reduce her personal footprint.

Feed a rapidly changing world is challenging

With the world population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, many environmental advocates say meat, and beef in particular, is not sustainable. The USDA reports Americans eat about 60 pounds of beef per person per year, making them the largest consumers in the world, The U.S. accounts for 21% of beef eaten in 2020.

“Studies have arrived at identifying beef as one of the more impactful food categories and why people advocate for vegetarianism,” said Chris Costello, an agricultural and biological engineer at Penn State University.

Cows from the dairy and meat industry produce large amounts of methane, the greenhouse gas and cattle is the number one source of it in agriculture. But of course, it's complex.

“Those foods are causing more impact than chicken or tofu and many of the synthetic meats. But, you know, even those have their own issues,” she said, adding that asking people to lower their meat consumption can make sense at an individual scale but will not solve the issue of equitably providing food for the entire world.

“You can certainly feel like making a choice towards lower impacting foods has a place,” Costello said. But in her research, she focuses on broader scaled questions: What is our agricultural system? What would it take to fundamentally shift towards something more sustainable?

The answer is not easy. Switching to only growing plants would come with a lot of challenges. One of them would be to completely change our relationship with food and where it comes from, which is difficult in a world of 8 billion people, living in widely diverse socio-economic and cultural contexts.

Menus (and minds) are changing

A well known spot in Boise to grab some vegan dishes is actually. a barbecue joint. BBQ4 life was named runner up for best BBQ and best vegan restaurant of 2023 by Boise Weekly.

Owner Brad Taylor is a die-hard meat eater himself, but offering vegan options was a no-brainer.

“If you don't take vegan food serious at this point, I don't know why you wouldn't,” he said. “ You're automatically eliminating a big chunk of people from coming in at all.”

About 10 to 15% of their daily sales are from their vegan menu, he said. The inspiration to include vegan dishes came from his sister.

She had been a vegan for ten years by the time he started his business, and he saw how hostile the world was for those who just wanted vegan food.

“I can appreciate the little guy fight,” he said. “So it wasn't about being a vegan, it was about giving people a good option.”

BBQ4Life’s menu might reflect Americans’ shifting views on plant based diets, as more people seem willing to try them out.

But while access to veggie and vegan options has increased nationwide, a 2023 Gallup poll shows only 4% of Americans are vegetarian, and about 1% are vegan. Those numbers have not changed much in the last 20 years .

Taylor thinks more and more people will turn towards plant-based diets, but on his end he has no intention to make a switch.

“No meat at all I think would be hard,” he said laughing. “And beef just tastes so good. It would be a cold world.”

Doing something by reducing meat consumption

Lisa Rae Lindsey remembered hearing about the perils of global warming in the 90s.

“It turned out in a very short time to be very real,” she said. “We're speeding so fast into this crisis.”

Working in the Wellness Department at the Boise Co-op, she’s been able to see as certain products became popular - these days nut or plant based milks are in fashion - but overall, she hasn’t seen a permanent trend towards vegetarian or veganism.

“It's very trendy. Food is trendy,” she said. “We just go around and around with it.”

She eats a mostly plant based diet herself, and has meat only on rare special occasions. When she does, meat is a treat, a “big deal” she said.

“For Thanksgiving we had a chicken, but we don't have chicken every day or all the time,” she said.

Costello, of Penn State, said at a global scale, meat provides high-quality protein to billions of people and it wouldn’t be realistic to ask everyone to stop eating it without overhauling our entire agricultural system.

“It is providing the majority of nutrition for people in this country, like full stop,” she said. “If you really look at the contribution of these really wonderful alternative practices, it's almost negligible.”

But, in the western world, she said even eating a little bit less meat can make a difference.

“If the average consumption in the United States is 58 pounds of beef per capita and you're eating 30,” she said, “You're doing something, you're reducing.”

Jenée Cyran understands being vegetarian isn’t necessarily for everyone but even trying out meatless Monday here and there can make a difference, she said.

“I think any small change could be helpful,” she added.

So while swapping your creamer for a plant based milk in your morning coffee or trying out the veggie option at your local joint might not feel like much, many scientists agree: small changes in diet do add up.

As the Canyon County reporter, I cover the Latina/o/x communities and agricultural hub of the Treasure Valley. I’m super invested in local journalism and social equity, and very grateful to be working in Idaho.

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