Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reconsiders its dietary guidelines.
In 2015, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee submitted a report to the USDA that recommended eating less meat and more plants. Those recommendations ultimately were not included in the updated guidelines. However, they are being considered again for the 2020 update.
The Beef With Beef
While the exact figure varies depending on who is doing the research—largely because different studies use different parameters—it’s widely accepted that beef production requires well over 20 times the land and 10 times the water that it takes to raise other animals for meat. Beef production also generates five times the greenhouse gas emissions per calorie.
One report to weigh the effect that raising livestock has on the climate comes from Chatham House, a London-based think tank. Released at the end of 2014, the report found the global livestock industry as a whole creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s cars, planes, trains, and ships combined. The livestock industry generates 14.5 percent of all carbon emissions, and beef and dairy production account for roughly two-thirds.
Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock have increased 51% since the early 1960s as more nations shift away from traditional diets and toward Western ones as incomes rise.
At current rates of increase, by 2050 meat consumption will rise 75 percent and dairy 65 percent. Grain consumption by humans is on track for a 40 percent increase in the same time period, a further indication of how meat and dairy consumption is increasing more quickly than food consumption overall.
Without a global shift toward less meat and dairy consumption, the report concludes, “It is unlikely global temperature rises can be kept below 2 degrees Celsius.”
Your Choices Make a Difference
A shift toward a plant-based diet can begin with each individual. To help you weigh your options, here are some guidelines: An omnivorous diet creates roughly 6,500 pounds of CO2 equivalent a year; a vegetarian diet comes in at a bit over 5,000 pounds; and a vegan diet is slightly lower at 4,500 pounds.
Like the global total emissions, you may find reports that offer different numbers. Some show that you can cut your carbon footprint in half by eating a vegetarian diet, for example. Don’t get hung up on the specific numbers. No matter who is doing the calculations, it’s omnivore, vegetarian, then vegan, from highest to lowest environmental impact.
Another consideration that is not necessarily represented in the statistics is the ecological impact of factory farmed meat, dairy, and vegetables versus the same products raised using permaculture and regenerative agricultural methods. The latter systems take a holistic approach, incorporating animals and plant production into the local ecosystem, helping all of nature to thrive.
You may also be motivated by animal welfare concerns, individual health concerns, and issues of local versus nonlocal food production.
While these are all important issues to be considered, the shift toward a more plant-based diet, as illustrated in the Chatham House report and others like it, is one of the most important individual lifestyle choices you can make for the health of the planet.
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies