Dear EarthTalk: I’ve recently been really into salads and have been wondering does my consumption of more salads and less meat help fight climate change? – Penelope Marie, via e-mail
Prioritizing salads is indeed a step forward, as meat and animal products lead to pollution and the production of greenhouse gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to global warming. Methane emissions from cows is a significant source of greenhouse pollution, but livestock agriculture also contributes to global warming in other ways. In fact, the global meat industry would be the third largest polluter if it was a country after the United States and India.
Worse, 58 percent of food emissions come from animal products alone. Another contributing factor is improper storage methods leading to immediate declines in water quality when antibiotics and feces-borne diseases such as e. coli enter waterways. Several containment failures for pig feces in North Carolina in recent years highlight the severity of the problem.
Plant-based diets have the potential for reducing one’s carbon footprint. A carbon footprint is how much each person contributes to climate change through their consumer behaviors, including their support of factory food production.
If you’re one of the 89 percent of Americans who eat meat and other animal products, you’re complicit with factory farming techniques. However, choosing to minimize your meat consumption—by eating salads—can help break this cycle. In fact, a recent study in the journal Food Policy finds that cutting meat consumption in half can reduce a typical American’s carbon footprint by some 30 percent.
Some argue that so-called “ethical consumption” is less significant a factor than institutional action—and therefore individual actors don’t have the capacity to shift global climate problems. But this line of reasoning fails to take into account the importance of citizen and consumer action in shifting societal behaviors. Indeed, consumers can work in tandem with governments and businesses. This could include boycotting meat, advocating for social change or volunteering with or donating to related nonprofit and/or political campaigns. Voting for candidates who take the climate crisis seriously is also an important way individuals can make a difference.
Finally, consider other ideas to reduce your carbon footprint even further. Salads are a great start, but staying mindful of what one puts into a salad is also important. Consider reducing quinoa and almond consumption. Quinoa degrades soil quality. Almonds siphon water away from people and animals, which contributes to drought conditions in California. Focusing on reducing meat consumption as much as possible may also be helpful, including switching to vegetarian proteins such as beans or reducing a reliance on proteins as the centerpiece of a meal.
Even if you’ve already done a great job reducing your carbon footprint in other ways, think about how much more you could be contributing by reducing or eliminating meat from your diet.
CONTACTS: Going vegan: can switching to a plant-based diet really save the planet? theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/apr/25/going-vegan-can-switching-to-a-plant-based-diet-really-save-the-planet; Plant-based diet can fight climate change – UN, bbc.com/news/science-environment-49238749; Extinction Rebellion, extinctionrebellion.uk/; Cows Are the New Coal, time.com/6125014/cows-agricultural-emissions/.
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