Our food comes from the Earth and what we choose to eat makes a difference not only for our health, but also for the health of our planet. Yet, when Dietary Guidelines are created by the federal government to recommend what is healthiest for Americans to eat, should environmental impacts be weighed as well? I cannot help but stand along the environmentalists and health experts who shout yes against the meat industry that screams no.
You might be wondering how dietary recommendations ever became a political argument in the first place. It turns out, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee updates dietary recommendations every five years. The last time the recommendations were updated was in 2010, and new rules will be finalized around May 2015. While you may not have considered the food pyramid, now known as MyPlate, since your high school nutrition class, the Dietary Guidelines actually have huge industry implications. The guidelines impact millions of meals by determining what is served at schools and prisons and what is taught at Federal food and nutrition programs. Consequently, whatever is recommended or not recommended will affect the bottom line of food producers.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made history when it mentioned it would take into account environmental impacts in addition to health impacts when making dietary recommendations. Considering 40% of the Earth’s land surface is partitioned to producing food, the eating decisions we make have huge impacts on the environment. Certain foods release a greater amount of greenhouse gases per pound of product during production than other foods. In general, animal products produce more greenhouse gases per pound than plant products, because animal products require additional inputs such as feed, pastureland, and drinking water. The production of red meat is particularly notorious. According a study done by the Environmental Working Group, 29% of American meat consumption in 2009 was beef, which has an emissions ratio of 27.1 kilos of carbon dioxide per kilo of beef consumed. Beef’s rate of emissions is two times that of pork, four times that of chicken, and more than thirteen that of vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu. In fact, the Environmental Working Group concludes that, “if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like taking 7.6 million cars off the road.”
Choosing to reduce meat consumption not only reduces the amount of greenhouse gases emitted, it also has positive health benefits. A diet heavy in meats has been linked to obesity. While Americans may worry about receiving enough protein from a plant based diet, the truth is that Americans take in much more protein than recommended, whereas adults only receive 4% of their recommended vegetables. Furthermore, red and processed meats, which are the worst for the environment, are also the worst for your health and are linked to chronic diseases. In a study of 500,000 Americans, those who ate the most red meat were 20% more likely to die of cancer than those who ate the least red meat.
Once Americans understand the health and environmental consequences of their food choices, they will be more likely to make the healthiest choices for both their bodies and the world. As the meat industry continues to lobby Congress, you can show the Obama appointed Dietary Committee Advisers your support of environmentally friendly dietary guidelines by submitting your comments at the My Plate, My Planet website.
* Please note this is an opinion piece that does not necessarily reflect the views of Green Grounds.
source: Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guider to Climate Change