Opinion

Diet for a healthier planet | Gustafson

While the exact causes of climate change continue to be disputed, there is general consensus among scientists that the phenomenon is real and that human activity plays a significant role in it. But surprisingly, it is not only large-scale industrial enterprise or modern-day transportation that has led to the current warming of the earth’s atmosphere but also very personal behavior like the diet and lifestyle choices we all make every day, according to a new study.

One thing that stands out in particular is meat consumption. The production, transportation and storage of animal food products, especially red meat, greatly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, affecting the amount of heat retained by the atmosphere.

The study report, which was published in the journal Climatic Change, found that the carbon footprint of meat eaters can be twice as high as that of strict vegetarians, a.k.a. vegans.

Included in the study’s calculations of greenhouse gas emissions were multiple sources, ranging from the use of farm equipment to methane released by livestock.

Reducing meat consumption in favor of plant-based eating would therefore help mitigate the environmental damage stemming from our dietary preferences, the study concluded.

These findings are not altogether new. Past research on the subject showed similar results. Earlier this year, one study found that annual carbon emissions from global agriculture could be reduced by as much as 90 percent by 2030, the equivalent of removing all cars in the world, based on data gathered by two environmental advisory groups, Climate Focus and California Environmental Associates.

The study report includes strategies for mitigating the agricultural impact on climate through reduced food waste, improved farming methods, and ensuring greater food security.

The report also found that 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come from farm animals, in particular from cows, sheep, and other grazing livestock. Much of these emissions could be eliminated if the demand for animal food products like beef, lamb and pork could be lessened, especially in Western countries but also in fast developing places like China.

The United States is currently the world’s biggest consumer of red meat. Public awareness campaigns like “Meatless Monday” that call for eating less meat have made some progress in recent times. Beef consumption per capita has dropped from its peak at nearly 90 pounds in 1976 to under 60 pounds in 2009, according to statistics.

Cutting back on steaks and burgers has similar environmental benefits as using your car less often or air-drying your laundry instead of putting it in a dryer, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

For example, in terms of reducing environmental impact, having just one less burger a week is like driving 320 fewer miles. Skipping meat and cheese one day a week equals not driving for five weeks. If a family of four foregoes eating steak once a week, it’s the equivalent of leaving their car in the garage for three months. And if every American observed just one meatless day per week, it would be the same as taking 7.6 million cars off the road for good. Something worth thinking about, isn’t it?

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

 

 

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