The food we eat is a matter where health and environmental sustainability converge. That’s because food production contributes approximately one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the livestock sector responsible for 14.5%. Yale University reports that in California alone, 1.8 million dairy cows, together with a smaller number of beef cattle, emit greenhouse gases equivalent to 11.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year — as much as 2.5 million cars. Simply swapping a serving of beef for a veggie-based meal even one time per week will improve your health and reduce harmful carbon emissions produced by cattle. A climate-friendly diet centered around fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes and nuts, provides healthy fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. Research from the Mayo Clinic shows that people who eat small amounts of meat – or no meat at all – generally eat fewer calories, tend to weigh less, and have a lower risk of heart disease.
The health benefits of plant-focused eating are well-founded. The Blue Zones project – which studies communities where many residents live more than a century – compiled 150 studies and concluded that those enjoying longer lifespans “crowd out refined starches and sugar, replace them with more wholesome, nutrient-dense, and fiber-rich foods—and do it all naturally”. Blue Zones suggests that 95% of your food “come from a plant or a plant product, and animal protein is eaten sparingly, as a celebratory food, a small side, or a way to flavor dishes”.
Adopting a climate-friendly diet is less expensive and may be less stressful, as one can avoid calorie counting. Where traditional diets require cutting back, a climate-diet encourages piling on as many veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, and grains as you like. “To easily incorporate more vegetables and fruits, just make sure to have them readily available – washed and chopped,” says nutritionist Jennifer Barrell. “Start off your meal with a big salad or some fruit to optimize digestion and enjoy some plant-based, nutrient dense choices first, and so you’re not starving before starting the main course. Swapping riced cauliflower for basmati or zucchini spirals for regular pasta, and dressing up a hearty vegetable or legume like eggplant or lentils with seasonings and sauces creates an emphasis on healthier choices- it becomes easier to skip the meat altogether, or use it as a side.”
Why is beef and dairy consumption such a challenge to climate objectives? A commonly cited assertion is that cattle burp as they digest food, releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with roughly 30 times more heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide. Additionally, decomposing cow manure releases nitrous oxide (NO3) during the process of nitrification, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. But there are also the inputs. The Beef Cattle Research Council estimates that beef requires about 1,910 gallons of water per pound of beef from pasture to the dinner table, and many ranchers use nitrous oxide emitting fertilizers to grow the hay, grain, and other feeds to get cows to market weight. At a global level, rainforests that typically remove carbon from the atmosphere are cleared to make way for pasture. According to the Drawdown Project, if half of the world’s population adopts a plant-rich diet by 2050, around 65 gigatons of carbon dioxide would be kept out of the atmosphere over a span of 30 years – which equals about two years of emissions from fossil fuels and industry combined. Simply put, plant food choices reduce the pressures on ecosystems and land while meeting the growing global demand for food.
Tackling the climate challenge necessitates all-hands-on-deck and making the personal choice to eat with a “plant slant” – heavy on vegetables, bread, rice, and beans – is an excellent step toward living lighter on the planet. Enjoy these climate-friendly plant-based goodies – and celebrate your newfound health!