Want To Fight Climate Change? Look No Further Than Your Dinner Plate

Shifting to a plant-based diet is key to saving the planet. 

By Marty Irby

While generations before us have faced many challenges, no previous generation has faced a greater responsibility to protect the planet. We are at a pivotal moment at this point in human history, and the decisions we make now about how to face that responsibility will have lasting impacts. How do we prevent the magnitude of this duty from paralyzing us into inaction?

In protecting the environment, it's empowering to know some of the most important actions we can take to lower our carbon footprint are also among the simplest. We can reduce our meat consumption and refine our diets so the meat we eat comes from smaller scale, independent family farmers who adhere to higher animal welfare standards and practice better stewardship of the land.

"Raising animals on factory farms contributes more to climate change than all the world's cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships combined."

Most of us sit down several times a day to a plate of food, and the food choices we make have consequences for the environment, as well as for the countless animals in the industrial food production system. According to a United Nations report, livestock production from factory farms causes "an even larger contribution to climate change than the transportation sector worldwide." That's right: raising animals on factory farms contributes more to climate change than all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships combined.

Industrial animal agriculture is also insatiably thirsty: it takes more than 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single steak, and over 800 gallons to produce a single glass of milk, according to the Water Footprint Network. Nearly 600 gallons of water are used to produce just one pound of chicken meat, and nearly 400 gallons go into just one egg.

The process of raising and slaughtering factory-farmed animals generates 100 times more waste than the average human. Manure is dumped into giant cesspools known as lagoons and then sprayed directly onto fields, completely untreated. This pollutes important waterways, according to Science of the Total Environment, and contributes significantly to the more than 400 dead zones that exist at river mouths worldwide. These dead zones are oxygen-depleted waterways where no animal life can be sustained.

Conversely, traditional family farmers use methods that have been passed down from generation to generation, allowing for preservation of the land and a high level of care for the animals. Examples include using alternative energy sources and raising fewer animals per acre on open pasture.

Consumers are increasingly supporting producers who are trying to buck the factory farm model by buying certified organic, pasture-raised animal products at our grocery stores and farmers markets. Research where your food is coming from before you buy, and encourage friends and family to do the same.

So what would the impact on climate change be if we ate more plant-based foods and switched to products produced with more humane, sustainable systems and practices, rather than the industrial agriculture model? Simply put, this strategy would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as preserve our natural lands and water.

When we sit down to eat we can play a role in addressing one of the world's most pressing problems. Personal responsibility begins at home — it's up to us as individuals to create the kind of world we want to live in and the kind of Earth we want to live on. Only we can set the table for change.