Our Food Choices Matter

We’ve all learned about ways to reduce our own environmental footprints by making a variety of lifestyle changes such as:

  • following the “three R’s”,
  • driving hybrid or electric cars,
  • using public transportation,
  • walking or biking when possible,
  • installing renewable energy systems and energy efficient appliances,
  • using energy efficient light bulbs,
  • taking less and shorter showers with low flow shower heads,
  • not watering our lawns,
  • using collected rainwater in rain barrels,
  • insulating our homes,
  • shopping at locally owned businesses, and
  • making environmentally responsible investments.

But we rarely hear about the tremendous environmental impact that our food choices have, despite the fact that raising animals for food accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (“GHGs”), 80% of worldwide land use, 30% of global fresh water consumption, and is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction. Fortunately, that appears to be changing.

The Federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report

Every five years, the federal government publishes updated advice on what Americans should eat (think of the food pyramid). These dietary guidelines are based on recommendations from a panel of expert scientists who sit on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). This expert panel issued its latest recommendations in a February 2015 report, which includes the common sense idea that our “food print” matters; that we as a nation ought to be making food choices for environmental, as well as personal health, reasons. For the first time, the DGAC’s recommendations explicitly highlight the intersection between our dietary decisions and the impact of those decisions on the health of our environment–in other words, on our planet’s ability to continue to provide us with the food we need to stay healthy for generations to come. Of particular significance, the DGAC found that vegetarian diets are not only consistently related with “positive health outcomes” including reduced risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other diseases but also has less environmental impact in terms of GHG emissions, land use, water use and energy use, compared to the average American diet that is high in animal-based foods.

Meat Consumption is One of the Leading Causes of Global Environmental Destruction

Indeed, of all the foods we eat, our meat, poultry and dairy products are by far the most resource-intensive and environmentally damaging to produce. 56% of fresh water consumption in the U.S. is attributed to livestock production as compared to our private home water usage — i.e., drinking water, doing dishes, taking showers, watering lawns – which accounts for a mere 5% of U.S. water consumption. Similarly, nearly half of all land in the contiguous U.S. is directly or indirectly devoted to animal agriculture, which makes sense given that it requires 2-5 acres to raise just one cow. And notably, even though we currently grow enough food to feed 10 billion people, 50% of food grown worldwide goes to feed livestock. This staggering inefficient use of resources is particularly disturbing from a humanitarian perspective given that 82% of starving children live in countries where food is grown to feed livestock that are eaten by people in western countries. And, 15 times more protein can be produced on a given area of land by growing plants for direct human consumption rather than feeding it to cows.

To put the extraordinary impact our food choices have into perspective, consider that it takes only 1/6th of an acre to feed a vegan for a year, about half an acre to feed a vegetarian, but three acres to feed the average American meat-eater. Furthermore, meat-eaters produce about twice as many dietary-related greenhouse gas emissions as vegans and vegetarians. People who eat 3.5 ounces of meat per day—about the size of a deck of playing cards—generate 15.8 pounds of carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2e), whereas vegetarians and vegans are responsible for 8.4 pounds and 6.4 pounds of CO2e, respectively. Compared to the average meat-eater, a person who eats a plant-based diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, 20 pounds of CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life every day.

The Answer is Clear

The world population is expected to grow from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 billion by 2050. Although we are currently growing enough food to feed 10 billion people, most of that food is going to feed livestock. At current rates of meat consumption, we will need the resources of several more planets to feed the world in 2050, yet we only have one.