Could Eating Less Meat Help Save the Planet?

The USDA could be changing its guidelines for meat consumption—for environmental reasons

Climate change has been a hot topic in the news lately. Weird weather patterns across the world—like hurricanes in New York City, warm winters in typically cold and snowy countries such as Austria and Switzerland, and near-record snowfalls in the UK—are making it harder and harder to ignore.

While individuals and environmental organizations have been taking action for a while, we have not always seen the same level of responsiveness by governmental agencies—until now.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is about to release the latest version of its dietary guidelines, and as a response to the environmental challenges we’re facing, it is considering changing the food pyramid and its dietary recommendations to help avert climate change.

I was shocked (and very happy) when I saw this report. The USDA’s potential change to the food pyramid would restrict the amount of meat recommended for consumption, not from a health perspective (although eating less meat will impact your health), but from an environmental one.

Raising animals for meat production is one of the biggest factors of climate change. Meat production has been estimated to be responsible for up to 51 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock populations themselves are responsible for carbon dioxide and methane gas emissions from their waste products.

The USDA’s potential change to the food pyramid would restrict the amount of meat recommended for consumption, not from a health perspective … but from an environmental one.

This is not new news. A 2006 United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization study noted that our diets and, specifically, the meat in them, cause more greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and the like—to spew into the atmosphere than either transportation or industry. The UN study also found that producing half a pound of hamburger for someone’s lunch releases as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as driving a 3,000-pound car nearly 10 miles.

It’s great to see that the American government is heeding these warnings and considering that one of the best ways to reduce climate change is to tell people to eat less meat. Eating less meat could significantly alter the future of the environment and provide myriad benefits for the health of this planet. Knowing this, I urge people to reduce their meat consumption or take the leap and go vegetarian or vegan. (One of the best moves that I have ever made was to follow a vegan diet three years ago). There are many great programs and support systems, such as the 21 day vegan kickstart program from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, that can help you transition away from eating animal products.

Whether or not the USDA ultimately changes the food pyramid, we can work on reducing (or eliminating) our meat consumption for the health of our planet.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user greenenergyfutures.

Michael Forman is a native of Bronx, New York, and has lived in New York City for almost his entire life. He is the executive farm director of Pure Love Organic Farms, an organic, urban farm that he and three other friends created in 2012 from a former garbage dump site. Michael also works as the North American account manager for Totally Green in the sustainable technologies field.