Can your dinner tonight help save our planet?

By: Sarah Wilson

Image Credit: Meatless Monday

The choices we make every week and every day regarding the food we purchase and eat can have a direct impact on global warming.   Our diets are, in part, exacerbating the problem of climate change.  By shifting our diets toward plants and away from meat we can not only improve our health but also help the environment and slow climate change.

Meatless Monday is a global movement that encourages people to reduce meat in their diet for their health and the health of the planet. The current campaign was started in 2003 in association with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.  However the concept dates back to World War 1 when Americans were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens and eat less meat so more would be available for our troops.  This program was revived during WW2.   

Meatless Monday’s simple message to “skip meat once a week” has been effective because it provides a regular reminder to take the action on Monday, which is the day of the week on which people are most open to making positive changes.  Beginning each week by practicing a Meatless Monday can set an example for people to eat more fruits, vegetables and plant-based meals throughout the rest of the week.

Our food choices have a direct impact on the health of the planet. While all foods need resources to produce, meat and dairy have the greatest impacts on the environment.  Raising animals to feed the planet’s billions of people requires large amounts of land, feed, water, and energy for processing, storage, and transport.  

Nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) emissions come from the production of meat, dairy and eggs.  Livestock production produces more greenhouse gases than the world’s entire transportation sector — cars, trucks, planes, trains — combined. [1] The majority of those emissions come from cattle in the beef and dairy sector. The emissions associated with producing one quarter pound of beef is about the equivalent of driving a car seven miles or charging a smartphone for six months. [2] [3]

It takes a lot of water to produce meat, especially beef, which has the highest water footprint of all foods. Taking into account all stages of production, a hamburger made with one quarter pound of beef requires 425 gallons of water to produce.[4] 

Raising animals for meat and dairy production also requires a significant amount of land, leading to deforestation and the loss of other carbon sequestering natural lands. Livestock production uses 75 percent of the earth’s agricultural land, primarily for beef and dairy cattle grazing and growing crops for animal feed.[5]  Approximately 50 million acres/year of forest area are cleared for agricultural purposes each year, further increasing the carbon impact.  

You might think that sourcing your meat locally can have an impact, and it does, but transportation only accounts for about 10% of the meat’s GHG.   Because animal foods require vastly more energy and resources to produce than plant foods, a dietary shift away from animal products can be far more effective than buying local as a means of lowering one’s food-related environmental impact.  As the authors of Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States conclude:  “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to… a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

So yes, what you choose to eat for dinner tonight can indeed help our health and our planet.   

[1] Gerber PJ, Steinfeld H, Henderson B, et al. Tackling Climate Change through Livestock – A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; 2013.

[2] Pelletier, N., Pirog, R., Rasmussen, R. (2010) Comparative life cycle environmental impacts of three beef production strategies in the Upper Midwestern United States. Energy Use Agricultural Systems; Volume 103, Issue 6, July 2010, Pages 380-389.

[3] Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator

[4] Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 48, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands

[5] Foley, J. A., Ramankutty, N., Brauman, K. A., Cassidy, E. S., Gerber, J. S., Johnston, M., . . . Zaks, D. P. M. (2011). Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature, 478, 337. doi:10.1038/nature10452  https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10452

Yorktown100 is a 100% volunteer group of neighbors working to reduce our carbon footprint by 5% a year through various programs.   Contact us if you would like to learn more, or would like to join.  We welcome new members!  Visit us at https://yorktown100.org/ and help make a difference.

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