April 07, 2023

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

By Laura Drummond
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

In our second installment for Earth Month, we’re taking a cue from Michael Pollan, whose quote is featured in this post’s title, and talking about the single most impactful thing you can do today to help the environment. Eat less meat. 

Before you stop reading–we are not suggesting you take the leap toward an exclusively vegetarian or vegan lifestyle today. Rather than an elimination approach, we’re thinking about how we can reduce the amount of meat in our diets. If you have already adopted an exclusively plant-based diet, we salute you! And we offer information that could be helpful for you, too.   


Why eat less meat?

Researchers and environmentalists agree—the health of our bodies and our planet benefit from a reduction in meat consumption. In terms of our physical health, red meat and processed meat can be high in saturated fat, which raises cholesterol and puts you at increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. You can learn about the health benefits of eating less meat here

As for the environment, there are a number of reasons for curbing our meat consumption. Take a look at the following facts about the current state of the meat industry, and you’ll quickly see why we need a more sustainable food system. 

Land use: About 40% of all land on earth is taken up by farm-based food production. Of that, roughly 80% of all agricultural land is devoted to animal agriculture. (source) “Some of that land could be converted to more efficient food production, like growing high-protein lentils, or could be turned into forestland, which absorbs and stores carbon dioxide.” (source)
Greenhouse gas emissions: Greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture are estimated at 8.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year. Livestock are responsible for between 14.5% and 16.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 44% of those emissions are methane. (source) The percentage of greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture are equivalent to the emissions from all transportation around the world. (source)
Water use: It takes a significant amount of water to support the meat industry, factoring in the water requirements to grow the food the animals eat, the water needed for them to drink, and more. It is estimated that animal agriculture is responsible for 20-33% of all water consumption in the world–and 55% of water consumed in the United States. (source)
Pollution: Livestock produce 7 million lbs. of waste per minute in the United States alone. That’s 130 times more animal waste than human waste. (source)
Biodiversity loss: When land is transformed for animal agriculture, native ecosystems are disturbed, and native plants and animals become displaced from their habitats. One to two acres of rainforest are cleared every second, and the vast majority of that destruction is attributed to animal agriculture. It’s estimated that up to 137 plant, animal, and insect species are lost every day because of deforestation. (source)


If you’d like to learn more about how the meat industry negatively impacts the environment and how eating less meat can help, check out these resources:

The Game Changers (documentary film)
Cowspiracy (documentary film)
Seaspiracy (documentary film)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma (book by Michael Pollan) (see also: In Defense of Food and Food Rules)
Eating Less Meat Is Key to Climate Mitigation” (article via Sentient Media)
Which food is better for the planet?” (interactive article via The Washington Post)
What if we all ate a bit less meat?” (article via The New York Times)


Plant-based proteins, like beans, peas, and lentils, are healthier alternatives to meat, have less of an environmental impact, and often cost less. “A plant-rich diet will do more than electric cars, LED lighting, and concentrated solar power—combined” in terms of reducing or removing greenhouse gas emissions, according to Zero-Waste Chef Anne Marie Bonneau. A plant-rich diet consists of the proteins mentioned above as well as fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts. 


How can I start?

If you’re not ready to give up meat entirely, you can still make a positive impact just by trying out Meatless Mondays. Skipping meat just once a week for a year would be equivalent to not driving your car for a month in terms of reducing your carbon footprint. If you cut a single quarter-pound burger from your diet, you’re conserving more than 600 gallons of water. (source)

If you’re considering a shift to a more plant-based diet, discover the impact your meat-free meals can have with the Meat Free Mondays Impact Calculator


Recipe resources to help you get started with a plant-rich diet: 

BohoVegMom – simple, delicious vegan meals from Charlottesville local Amy Rolph  
Plant-Based on a Budget – quick, easy vegan meals from podcaster and author Toni Okamoto 
The Zero-Waste Chef – plant-forward recipes and tips for a sustainable kitchen and planet by Anne-Marie Bonneau

Want to take a day off from cooking? Check out our wonderful local restaurants that serve mouthwatering meat-free meals! 


And when you really have a hankering for meat, support local meat farmers and suppliers. This way, you are reducing the carbon footprint that is required to transport meat as well as supporting sustainable farming practices. 


Will you join us on cutting back on your meat consumption? Check back next week for more ideas on eating sustainably.


Laura Drummond, a sustainability-focused freelance writer based in Charlottesville, is our blog contributor. 

Eco-friendly diet meat + the environment Meatless Mondays