“There is no other single human activity that has a bigger impact on the planet than the raising of livestock,” says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “Per serving, red meat represents 140 times more greenhouse gas emissions compared to a serving of legumes.”
Willett explains that cattle are inefficient converters of resources, using far more inputs, including crops, water, land, and energy, than they yield in edible food. Pork, poultry (and eggs), and dairy have lower environmental burdens than beef, but more than vegetables, beans, and grains.
“Of all the grains produced and used in the United States, only about 10 percent is eaten by humans,” says Willett. He explains that about 45 percent goes to cattle feed, 30 to 35 percent for ethanol production, and 15 percent goes into products like corn syrup. “The whole system is unimaginably dysfunctional; it’s destroying our environment and our health at the same time,” he says.
Eating a more sustainable diet doesn’t mean we all need to be vegans, but eating less meat is a good place to start. Other good measures include buying locally grown, fished, and produced foods, which cuts the distance these items have to travel, reducing our use of plastic, not wasting food, and composting.
In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems, on which Willett was co-chair and one of 37 scientists from 16 countries, defined a “planetary health diet” as consisting of a variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes , nuts, seeds, and whole grains, with limited animal source foods, refined grains, added sugars, and unhealthy fats.
Diets rich in plant foods require fewer resources (land, water, energy, fertilizer, and no antibiotics) than a diet high in animal products. Producing animal-source foods generates more greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, which warms the earth’s atmosphere. Ruminant animals, such as cattle and sheep, produce high methane emissions from their digestive process (when they burp and pass gas) and manure.
Of course, the greatest sources of greenhouse gas emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) for transportation, electricity and heat generation, and industrial and commercial activities. But emissions from food production and food waste are significant: what we grow, eat, and discard matters.
At the same time food production contributes to climate change, the changing climate adversely impacts agricultural productivity due to warmer average temperatures, more frequent droughts, wildfires, and flooding, and increased pest infestations. The result, already evident, is increasing food insecurity in parts of the world. A planetary health diet is a sustainable diet. And we cannot have a secure food supply if that food supply is not sustainable.
Here are seven recommendations for reducing the environmental impact of your diet.
Eat less meat
A good way to reduce your meat consumption is to have a few meatless dinners each week and/or use only small amounts of, say, ground turkey, pork, or beef in sauces and vegetable mixtures to toss with pasta, whole grains, or use in casseroles. Instead of meat, try substituting sauteed tofu or seitan, and opt for beans in soups, stews, and salads. You can start with Meatless Monday, a well-established campaign, and add Taco Tuesday, using local, sustainable seafood or chicken in tortillas. Tofu Thursday anyone? Fish Friday?
While pastured cattle are more humanely raised than feedlot animals, they still produce similar methane emissions because they live longer, says Willett. If you’re eating meat, try buying local products that don’t have to be shipped yet.
Eat more plants
Author and food journalist Michael Pollan had it right, about 14 years ago, when he advised: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Whole (versus processed) foods and plants are better for our health and the planet’s.
The EAT-Lancet Commission recommends filling half your plate with vegetables and fruits, and the other half with a variety of whole grains, plant-based proteins (legumes, nuts, and seeds), healthy oils, and modest amounts of animal-based protein , such as poultry, seafood, meat, and dairy. (Check out this short presentation called “Healthy Plate, Healthy Planet” at www.gaplesinstitute.org/sustainable_diets.)
Eat a greater variety
Americans consume a limited range of vegetables, with potatoes, tomatoes (fresh and canned), and sweet corn topping the list. The big three animal proteins are chicken, beef, and pork; seafood and turkey are tied for a distant fourth place; and veal and lamb are eaten in miniscule amounts. Greater diversity in our diet is important for our health as well as biodiversity, marine ecosystems, and food security.
Check out area farmers markets and specialty produce stores that sell culturally diverse vegetables. Ethnic crops from Hmong, Brazilian, Central American, West African, and other immigrant farmers are worth sampling to broaden your repertoire and support these local growers.
Eat local foods, including growing your own
Buying locally grown and produced food reduces transportation costs, including fuel, refrigeration, and emissions. It also helps build and sustain a local food community. Shop at area farm stands and farmers markets, join a CSA, or select foods labeled “Local” at your supermarket. Organically grown produce reduces the chemicals in our foods, soil, air, and waterways.
Consider growing your own vegetables. Even with just a small plot of land or community garden or in deck or patio planters, you can grow vegetables, greens, and herbs.
Be flexible with seafood
Seafood is a healthy protein and we’re lucky to have many delicious wild options in New England. Jared Auerbach, founder and CEO of Red’s Best, says we shouldn’t limit ourselves to a few specific fish, because what’s abundant in our waters changes frequently. “Eat what’s available. It helps fishermen,” he says. “Regulations dictate supply, as well as how much can be harvested. And we have local, healthy, and sustainable fisheries because of regulations and strict quotas.” Currently abundant options include skate, haddock, scup, black sea bass, whiting, monkfish, mackerel, bluefin tuna, and shellfish.
Being flexible when choosing seafood also decreases the pressure on overfished species. According to the Marine Stewardship Council, over one-third of the world’s waters are overfished. This harms those species as well as other marine life swept up in nets (bycatch), and the long-term health of marine ecosystems.
While fishing does require diesel-powered boats, refrigeration, and transportation, local seafood has a lower carbon footprint than agriculture and livestock farming.
Cut food waste
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a whopping 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is wasted. This occurs at all stages of the supply and consumption chain, including in our homes. Unfortunately, most wasted food ends up in landfills, and as food decomposes, it emits methane. Also wasted are the enormous amounts of land, water, energy, and labor that went into producing, processing, and transporting that food. If we waste less food, we can produce less food, lowering the demand on limited resources.
Reducing waste in your household is simple: Purchase only what you plan on using, store foods correctly, prepare, cook, and eat (or freeze) what you buy. Make soups, sauces, pesto, pickles, relishes, jam, smoothies, and ice cream with surplus or imperfect vegetables and fruits. Use leftover veggies in stir-fries, pasta, stews, and egg dishes. Freeze leftovers for future meals.
Don’t discard foods based solely on the sell-by, use-by, or best-by date on the package. Look and smell first, and then taste, if appropriate. (Don’t taste foods like raw meat and poultry.) If you’re not going to use unopened items, donate them, before their expiration dates, to a local food pantry.
Divert waste from landfills by composting, which you can do on your own or use a pick-up service that will turn food scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer.
Use less plastic
The United States generated 40 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, most of which was from containers and packaging. Only a tiny 5 percent was recycled, 10 percent incinerated, and an unsustainable 85 percent or 34 million tons went to landfills.
It is estimated that 95 percent of plastic packaging is used in single-use products, such as water bottles, condiment packets, food wrapping, plastic bags, and bubble wrap. Every year, billions of pounds of plastic end up in the world’s oceans, killing millions of animals, including birds, fish, seals, whales, and sea turtles. Plastic does not decompose, but some forms break down into microplastics and microfibers, which have been found in drinking water systems and in the air.
It’s critical that we reduce the production and our use of single-use plastics. (Canada recently announced a ban on the manufacture and importation of harmful single-use plastics by the end of the year to fight pollution and climate change.) Opt for reusable, washable tote bags, mesh produce bags, water bottles, coffee mugs, straws , plates, and silverware. Recycle any plastics that can be recycled to keep them out of oceans and landfills.
So there it is, seven straightforward actions we can take to protect our environment and our health at the same time. When consumers demand earth-sustainable foods and other products, growers, manufacturers, fisheries, retailers, and restaurants will start to give us better options. But protecting the planet requires us, first and foremost, to make good choices.
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at email@example.com
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org