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Every year a new diet emerges. There’s low-carb, gluten-free, keto, paleo, weight-watchers, Bullet Proof, Noom, and blood-type diets. When you get a group of people together there’s no end to the number of various food restrictions these days. And then there’s just plain old picky eaters (we all know at least one…).
But you may have noticed more and more people lately saying “pass” on meat and opting for more plant-based alternatives. Even McDonald’s and Burger King have jumped on this trend, now with offerings like the Impossible Burger. But this isn’t just another fad — it’s a stepping stone in the journey of a sustainable lifestyle. And for good reason.
Meat and dairy products are a significant contributor to the global carbon footprint, and they aren’t an entirely necessary one. Humans don't technically need meat to survive, yet the average American eats 274 lbs of meat per year.
The impact of the meat industry is something environmentalists have been warning about for years, and as the world’s population continues to grow exponentially, it’s becoming an ever-growing concern. The problem is, there’s not just one issue to tackle when it comes to the meat and dairy industry.
Here are a few of the largest factors at play:
According to the Nature Conservancy, 30% of the world’s land mass is livestock pasture or growing livestock feed.1 In the United States, 80% of the agricultural land is used for raising livestock.2
Despite the massive amounts of land devoted to animal products, the FDA recommends animal products make up less than a quarter of a person’s diet.3 But the real problem lies in how much land meat production requires.
With a rising world population and more mouths to feed, this is becoming a more and more serious concern.
Fields used for livestock grazing contribute to deforestation and loss of wildlife habitat. In addition, when livestock are not properly fenced, they often cause contamination of local waterways and erode riparian buffer zones (Psst: Riparian buffer zones are the essential vegetation that lives along natural rivers and streams. The plant life keeps the river edge from eroding and also filters out debris to keep the water flowing clean).5
In addition to land, the amount of water it takes to create meat and dairy products is quite high. It takes 6x more water to produce a gram of beef protein compared to a gram of protein from legumes, for example.6
It’s not the water the animals drink that’s the problem — it’s the water required to grow the massive amount of crops to feed those animals. This is why you’ll hear people talk about eating lower on the food chain. As an animal moves up the food chain, the resources required to sustain it are multiplied by the amount of resources required to sustain its food source.
Seriously! Cows are rather large animals, however they get by on the very low nutrients of grasses and hay. In order to accomplish this, they use a process called rumination. (Brace yourself, this is a little gross.)
Basically cows eat the grass, it goes down into their stomach for a bit and then they burp it back up and chew it some more to help get the maximum nutrients from their food. In order to break down the grass, their stomach is full of microorganisms that eat the plants. Those microorganisms produce methane as a byproduct.
Since methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gasses, this has a significant negative impact on the environment.7
Beef, lamb, and pork take up more land and require more resources to grow. They are also larger, heavier creatures, making transportation and processing more intensive. These red meats are worse for the environment, so even if you don’t want to give up meat at all, you can still make an impact by choosing chicken over beef.
Dairy products are nearly as bad for the environment as beef (which you know by now is the worst meat).
In fact, in one study by Johns Hopkins University, vegetarians who ate more cheese and yogurt to replace their meat intake had only slightly better environmental impact than full meat-eaters.8
This isn’t an all-or-nothing principle. Just like driving — you don’t have to totally ditch your car to lower your carbon footprint. Just reducing the amount of meat and dairy you eat makes a difference.
In the same Johns Hopkins study, participants who ate only plant-based foods for two meals a day, but were allowed to eat meat and dairy for one meal a day had a lower carbon footprint than the average vegetarian diet.
And there are many different ways to incorporate going meatless into your life.
This hashtag started trending back in 2003 with a push from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future, but it’s a habit that many people have incorporated into their regular routine, just like carrying a reusable water bottle or refusing straws. On Monday’s you go meatless. It’s a great way to lower your carbon footprint and start building the habits of a more sustainable lifestyle.
Another option is to only eat meat at certain meals. If you eat meat and dairy at dinner, but cut it out for lunch and breakfast, you’ll significantly reduce your carbon footprint.
A great way to see how long you can go without meat is to challenge a friend and see who can get the longest streak of days without meat, dairy, or both.
Seriously! Okay, not like straight out of your garden…. But if you’re feeling adventurous, try cricket protein! Insects are a very sustainable source of protein because they require very few resources to grow and reproduce naturally. You’ll find these products mostly online at this point, but don’t be surprised if they start popping up in grocery stores.
Another way to lower the environmental impact of your diet is to simply reduce your food waste. Ensuring that meat and dairy products aren’t going to waste naturally reduces the amount you buy from the store. If you end up going out to eat instead of making that pork you bought, throw it in the freezer. It’s a simple yet effective eco-win.
Meat is something of a staple in the US, so it can be difficult to find plant-based meals if you haven’t grown up eating them.
Here are a few easy meal options to get you started:
This is just the beginning! If you’re looking for the next step on your journey to a sustainable lifestyle, reducing or eliminating your meat and dairy intake is a good place to start. For many people, it’s a work in progress — and that’s ok!
Every time you choose to pass on the red meat, or skip the cheese, you lower your carbon footprint. So what will it be for you? #MeatlessMondays? Veggie-based breakfast? You decide.