Many of us pay close attention to what we put on our plates because we’ve learned that what we eat can have a big effect on our health. But few of us stop to consider how our food choices impact our environment. In most cases, I think we’re just unaware. Maybe it’s time to educate ourselves about this increasingly important issue. After all, don’t we have a responsibility to our planet, helping feed the hungy and future generations?
Researchers at the World Resources Institute have learned that the type and quantity of food people eat has an important impact on the environment and that meat and dairy — especially beef — are particularly harmful. Meat and dairy are in fact considerably more resource-intensive to produce than plant-based foods. They increase pressure on our land, water and climate.
Statistics show that more than 66% of total greenhouse gases from food production comes from meat and dairy, even though they only contribute about 37 percent of total protein consumed.
Beef production requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of edible protein than common plant-based protein sources such as beans, peas and lentils. Chicken and pork are more resource-efficient than beef, but still require three times more land and emit three times more greenhouse gas emissions than beans. Surprisingly, more than three-quarters of the world’s agricultural land is used to produce meat and dairy.
But what if we make “better” choices? Haven’t we been told that grass-fed, free-range, cage-free and pastured options are a more responsible choice? And isn’t it at least better to buy and eat products that come from small organic farms, which practice more humane methods of production?
Well, maybe not. Although these smaller systems appear to be environmentally sustainable, evidence suggests otherwise according to a New York Times article, The Myth of Sustainable Meat. The real truth is that grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows and pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming.
To make matters worse, demand for animal-based food is expected to rise by 80 percent by 2050, with beef specifically increasing by 95 percent.
As nations urbanize and incomes rise, their citizens consume more calories and more animal-based foods such as beef, dairy, pork, chicken, eggs and fish, according to the WRI.
Additionally and equally important is the fact that the human population on our planet continues to rise, and is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. Experts warn that we cannot sustain this growth with our current industrial agricultural paradigm model. According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, natural health expert, the alarming concern is that if we continue along the present path, world hunger will continue to escalate without a viable way to meet the need.
The rise in the popularity of the Paleo Diet has also contributed to the increased demand for more meat. Food expert Michael Pollan debunks this diet for many reasons; most who defend this way of eating “don’t really understand…the proportions in the ancient diet…today’s meat is nothing like that of the hunter-gatherer.”
Americans eat more meat per person than any other people on earth, and we’re paying the price in doctor bills.
At 200 pounds of meat per person per year, our high meat consumption is hurting our national health. Hundreds of clinical studies in the past several decades show that consumption of meat and dairy, especially at the high levels seen in this country, can cause cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and a host of other diseases (meatonomics.com).
It’s interesting to note that the global average per person protein consumption exceeded dietary requirements in all regions in 2009, with each person consuming on average about 68 grams per day— one-third higher than the average daily adult requirement. In wealthy countries, protein consumption was higher still. For example, the average American man eats nearly 100 grams of protein per day, almost double the amount of protein he needs.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” ~Michael Pollan
So what can we do to help?
It’s not necessary for all of us to go as drastic as becoming vegan! But if each of us made even small dietary shifts towards more plant-based diets we could significantly reduce greenhouse emissions and the use of agricultural resources. According to the WRI, the average American could cut their diet’s environmental footprint in half just by eating less meat and dairy. If we build our meals around plant-based proteins, instead of meat the way most of us were raised, we could make a difference.
- If you eat beef, just shifting one-third of your beef consumption to other meats like chicken or pork could cut your diet’s environmental impacts by nearly 15 percent.
- Why not adopt the “Meat-free Monday” policy at your house?
- Think about cutting your total animal product consumption (all meat, dairy, fish and eggs) by half. If you currently eat meat and cheese at two meals per day, try switching to plant protein like beans, tofu or tempeh at one of your meals. To maintain a healthy weight, add additional plant-based foods to your diet, such as vegetables, oats, quinoa, rice, hummus, nuts and fruits.
- Use calcium-enriched milk substitutes more often. Any food that comes directly from a plant rather than from livestock will generally be responsible for a much lower level of greenhouse gas emissions than livestock products.
Study the WRI scorecard below and lean towards foods that have lower environmental impact:
“Whatever the case may be, for now at least, at this very moment, there appears to be some compelling empirical evidence that eating a diet based on compassion is good not only for animals but the environment we share with them.”
~James McWilliams, historian and writer.
You’ll see huge benefits to your health and waistline too!
Here’s one idea for a meat-free meal:
Vegan Thai Vegetable Curry
One can full-fat coconut milk (do not shake can)
1/2 cup vegetable stock
4 teaspoons tamari
3 teaspoons brown sugar
4 Tablespoons Thai green curry paste (Thai Kitchen brand has no shrimp or fish paste)
1/2 cup diced onion
2/3 cup diced red bell pepper
2/3 cup diced zucchini
2/3 cup diced, peeled sweet potato
2/3 cup sliced bamboo shoots, rinsed and drained
1 cup green beans, trimmed to 1-inch length
2/3 cup diced eggplant
8 large basil leaves, cut into thin chiffonade
Open the can of coconut milk without shaking it. Spoon 6 tablespoons of the coconut cream from the top of the can into a large skillet. Pour remaining contents of can into a medium bowl, and mix well. In a small bowl, combine vegetable stock, soy sauce and brown sugar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved.
Place skillet of coconut cream over medium-high heat until it begins to bubble. Add curry paste and reduce heat to medium-low. Stir constantly until very fragrant, about 3 minutes; adjust heat as needed to prevent burning.
Add all the vegetables: onion, red pepper, zucchini, sweet potato, bamboo shoots, green beans and eggplant. Stir until vegetables are hot, 2-3 minutes.
Stir in the rest of the coconut milk, bring the mixture to a boil and reduce heat to low. Simmer, uncovered until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.
Add the tamari mixture to the skillet along with a generous squeeze of fresh lime juice to taste; you may use the juice of an entire lime. Stir and mix well. Add up to 1/4 cup water if the curry seems too thick.
To serve, place the curry in a warm serving bowl and garnish with the basil chiffonade. If desired, serve over brown or wild rice.
Recipe adapted from NYTimes cooking.
This recipe is TWC-approved!