So you’re using the air conditioner a bit less and you replaced your old light bulbs with high-efficiency ones. Perhaps you’ve traded in the Hummer for a Prius or, better yet, are giving public transportation a spin. Those steps, big and small, will all help slow down global warming and otherwise be helpful to the environment.
Stick with `em.
But if you want to help even more, consider that you have three more opportunities every single day to do something for your planet: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Americans eat more than a billion pounds of food each day. To churn out the grains, meat and poultry, and fruits and vegetables that feed the country, our agricultural system consumes enormous quantities of fuel, fertilizers, water and pesticides and enormous tracts of erodible land.
But much of those resources aren’t feeding us directly – they’re producing the feed for the animals we eat, a terribly inefficient process that wastes nonrenewable resources. Many of the 100 million acres of land and 17 trillion gallons of irrigation water used to grow animal feed could be put to more productive uses – or not used.
The energy used just to produce fertilizer for feed crops could instead be used to fuel 1 million homes. Reducing the use of fertilizer to grow corn in the Midwest would bring aquatic life back to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where there is now a New Jersey-size dead zone.
Besides squandering resources going into animals, consider what we get out of them. For starters, there’s methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more conducive to global warming than carbon dioxide. The methane produced by belching cattle and giant lagoons of hog manure has the same impact on global warming as the carbon dioxide produced by 33 million automobiles.
The standard American diet, relatively high in meat and dairy, might as well be called the Global Warming Diet. Making even small changes can add up, as you can see on calculators available at www.EatingGreen.org. Replacing one hamburger, one egg and a 1-ounce serving of cheese each day for a year with a mix of vegetables, fruit, beans and whole grains would spare the need for 1.8 acres of cropland, 40 pounds of fertilizer, and 3 ounces of pesticides. It also would mean dumping 11,400 fewer pounds of animal manure into the environment.
Another benefit of eating fewer animal products is that fewer animals will need to be raised. Most livestock today suffer miserably when they are crammed together in small crowded cages, huge crowded sheds or filthy crowded feedlots.
If altruism isn’t reason enough to eat a “greener” diet, consider the selfish reasons to switch from burgers and bacon to cantaloupe and carrots. Vegetarians and others who eat more-plant-based diets are healthier than the rest of us. They have much lower rates of obesity, heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. Eliminating all the fats from beef, pork, poultry and dairy foods from Americans’ diets would save about 65,000 lives a year. And adding lots of plant foods would make arteries more flexible and reduce rates of cancer.
The government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends we eat more plant-based diets, but the it hasn’t adopted supportive policies. The government gives corn farmers several billion dollars a year to provide cheap feed for livestock and cheap high-fructose corn syrup for soda makers.
Why not direct those billions to putting more fresh fruits and vegetables on the lunch trays of America’s school kids? Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture encourages the consumption of beef, pork, dairy and eggs. Why not do that for whole wheat bread and broccoli instead?
A greener diet won’t stop all the glaciers from melting, but it protects hearts, cuts air and water pollution, and reduces animal suffering. Quite a bargain from eating delicious meals.
Michael F. Jacobson is executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. This was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Michael F. Jacobson, McClatchy-Tribune