On a basic level, our environmental impact is equal to the resources we use. By evaluating individual choices, we can each make a measurable impact on sustainability.
The choices we make when it comes to food can make a big difference. Why? Because food production is one of the most significant contributions to global warming.
In fact, a 2013UN study found that animal agriculture accounted for almost 15% of total emissions. To take a cow from birth to a burger requires significant amounts of water, land, grain, transportation, and other resources.
Why Is Food Production So Detrimental to Our Planet?
Well, first, the steady increase in population means we need more food to feed more people. The global population in 1950 was 2.6 billion people. By 2011, it was over 7 billion. Meat production has quadrupled in the past 50 years to meet increased demand.
To meet the rise in demand and production, the equivalent resources necessary to produce food have also increased. Here's a look at the resources that go into agriculture and food production:
- 260 million acres of land have been cleared in the United States to make room for animal agriculture.
- 70% of the grain and cereals grown in the United States go to feeding farm animals.
- According to the World Wildlife Fund, 25% of all global land use, land-use change, and forestry emissions are linked to beef production.
- 50% of the water in the United States goes to raising animals for food.
As you can see, a sizable increase in the population eating less animal products would greatly contribute to less resource use and environmental degradation.
What about the impact of our changes on an individual level?
Easy Changes You Can Make for Yourself and How They Help
Diet is an example of low stakes changes leading to a significant environmental impact. By removing meat from one meal a day, or a single day a week, you are saving a mind-boggling amount of water and grain. You’re also reducing emissions and helping to stop deforestation.
If each American dropped just one serving of chicken a week from their diet, it would reduce the equivalent carbon emissions of removing 500,000 cars from the road. By swapping one pound of meat for a plant-based meal, you save more water than you would by not showering for six months.
Eating a vegan diet for a day saves:
- 45 pounds of grain
- 1,100 gallons of water
- 20 pounds of carbon emissions
- 30 square feet of forest
However, for most people a vegan diet is not an overnight change. If you’re not ready to go all in, here are steps you can take to reduce your diet's environmental impact that will work over the long term:
- Cook one vegetarian or vegan meal each week
- Pick one day a month to eat a vegan diet
- Next time you're dining with a friend, choose a vegan or vegetarian restaurant
- Replace one office catering order with vegetarian catering
- Buy a vegan or vegetarian cookbook
- Try one new plant-based protein a month
The resources that go into our "regular" meat-intensive diet are significant. By making smart food choices and spreading awareness about the resource intensity of meat, we can all make a difference.
Eliza Erskine has a Master’s in Sustainability from the Harvard Extension School and a BA in Business Administration from Boston University. She founded Green Buoy Consulting in 2018 to help small and early stage businesses with sustainability. She grew up in the Pacific Northwest and lives in New York City.