Image by skeeze.
Animal agriculture is the single largest driver of biodiversity loss, and in the last few decades we have significantly increased our land use for livestock purposes. Converting unique ecosystems to pastures and fields for feed crops, we are not growing food directly for ourselves but for the animals we eat. Livestock graze on 26 percent of the planet’s habitable (ice-free) land, and 33 percent of our croplands are used to produce livestock feed.
Meat production accounts for 18% of anthropogenic emissions. For the sake of the argument, a recent study showed that if the whole world went vegetarian or vegan, food-related emissions would decrease by 60% and 70% respectively. Of course it is unrealistic that even the majority of the global population would at any point stop eating meat, and in certain places, the climate and environment can only support animal agriculture, and attempts to convert pastures to crop lands have failed.
In the developed world, young and well-educated people are turning to plant-based diets, but with incomes rising in developing countries, demand for animal products is only expected to increase. This is bad news from a global health perspective, as higher meat consumption is linked to poor health and premature deaths. It can also make it more challenging to argue that people in developed countries should try to reduce their meat intake. However, a new study shows that we don’t need the whole world going vegan to start reversing climate change. Simply reducing our meat consumption to 10% (around 90 grams) of our daily caloric intake would have a significant positive effect on the planet’s ecosystems and global biodiversity. If we also pay attention to where that meat is coming from and supporting small, sustainable farms instead of industrial meat production, we can help generate even more positive effects on biodiversity: in fact, small-scale, sustainable livestock grazing helps many native species that thrive only in open landscapes.
We underestimate the effect of our dietary choices on the climate and environment, and when we discuss the climate crisis, we talk about cars, not steaks. The average American family of four, however, emits significantly more greenhouse gases from meat consumption than from driving two cars.
Here are just four simple tips to reducing meat intake and eating more sustainably:
Eat more plants
This is an obvious one, and while some meat lovers out there still think vegetarians and vegans only eat salads, a plant-based diet can be incredibly diverse and includes vegetables, grains, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, a combination of which can make for flavorful, delicious meals.
Take inspiration from other cultures
Some food cultures, especially in Asia, include little meat and no dairy. Try mixing up your meal routine with inspiration from China or Thailand, and look to Mediterranean dishes for a vast variety of meat-free flavor.
Reduce your food waste
This is a big one and it benefits not only the planet, but also your wallet. The average American household wastes at least 40% of food. This includes a lot of meat and dairy. A few tips to reduce food waste at home: see meat and dairy for what they are - precious resources. Don’t buy too much, don’t over serve, save leftovers (and actually eat them), store food in the right place and trust your senses (smell, sight and taste) over the expiration date on the package.
Choose small-scale, sustainable and ethical meat producers
Finally, if you’re going to eat meat, make sure you know where it comes from. This includes doing a little bit of research and shopping at farm stores, farmers markets and independent butchers.
Mia Rishel is a conservation biologist whose work has taken her many exciting places: rehabilitating wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, helping endangered iguanas in Mexico, exploring predator coexistence in Namibia, and promoting farm animal welfare in Zanzibar. She is Chair of Grant Writing and Volunteer Committees for The Orangutan Project USA, grant writer for Conservation South Luangwa and copywriter for Faunalytics. Read all of Mia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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