When you're eating a juicy hamburger, you would hardly think that you are affecting the health of the planet - but according to the federal government, you are. An advisory panel of nutritionists and researchers are advising in a new report that Americans eat less meat in order to save the environment.
"These guidelines can have a huge impact on people's diets and ultimately our natural resources," Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager at Berkeley-based Friends of the Earth, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The new dietary guidelines, laid out in a 571-page report released Thursday, urges Americans to eat more plant-based foods and fewer animal-based foods in an effort to have a "lesser environmental impact."
Previous research has suggested that changing our diets could be crucial to combating climate change. But don't freak out, because the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) isn't saying we have to go full on vegetarian, but simply cut back on the red meat and poultry.
Believe it or not, red meat is particularly harmful to the environment. One recent study pointed out that the world's cows and pigs contain "hidden" emissions such as methane and nitrous oxide that contribute to the harmful buildup of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. And now this new report brings the controversial environmental debate to light.
The panel notes that global food production is responsible for 80 percent of the planet's deforestation, 70 percent of freshwater use and 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gases.
Deforestation and Greenhouse Gases
There are approximately 3.6 billion heads of livestock in the world, equating to about half the global human population. Moreover, about 25 percent of the Earth's land area is dedicated to livestock grazing, and a third of all arable land is used to grow feed crops for livestock.
Outside of the United States, grazing cattle are a major driver of deforestation, especially in the famous Amazon rainforest.
And this widespread tree clearing for the sake of cattle (dubbed the next invasive species) doesn't just leave thousands of diverse species homeless; it also contributes to global warming by removing potential carbon-storing trees. (Scroll to read on...)
"Alone, the deforestation caused by cattle ranching is responsible for the release of 340 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year, equivalent to 3.4 percent of current global emissions," wrote the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Eating one juicy burger, for example, is the carbon equivalent of driving your car every day for a month.
Other than cutting back on the burning of fossil fuels, reducing carbon emissions from livestock is key to curbing climate change caused by man-made emissions.
The DGAC therefore recommends simply eating less meat, stopping short of advising people to completely eliminate it from their diet. Healthy alternatives include seafood that isn't in short supply as well as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Freshwater Use and Food Supply
"The production and consumption of meat in the US requires massive amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, feed, land and water," Hamerschlag told the Chronicle. "Particularly for us here in California, with the drought, reducing meat consumption can reduce pressure on resources like water."
It was recently announced that California has been suffering from a three-year-drought that is the worst the region has seen in more than a millennium. And if the Golden State is to ever climb out of this drought, a NASA-led study says it's going to have to gain 11 trillion gallons of water back somehow.
That's how much it will take to refill the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins to "normal" levels and sustain California's extensive agricultural industry. Ironically, agriculture and consumption of the cows on this land is partially what's driving the drastic water loss. (Scroll to read on...)
Additionally, water isn't the only thing we have in short supply due to livestock. Future food supply is another issue entirely, and one that is increasingly worrying scientists given that the global human population is rising to unsustainable levels - an amount that even a worldwide pandemic can't cure.
By the year 2100, there will be a whopping 11 billion people on this planet. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United States, food availability per capita has been declining for two decades; and our hunger for beef isn't waning. The production of beef, poultry, pork and other meats tripled between 1980 and 2010, and it will likely double again by 2020. It's possible that the global food supply may not meet future demand.
"Addressing this complex challenge is essential to ensure a healthy food supply will be available for future generations," the report reads.
Already this "beef burden" is taking a toll on wildlife, habitat, and resources and the climate.
"It is imperative to find ways to achieve global food security without expanding crop or pastureland. Food production is a main driver of biodiversity loss and a large contributor to climate change and pollution, so our food choices matter," researcher Bojana Bajzelj from the University of Cambridge said in a news release.
Unsurprisingly, Americans eat more meat than anyone else, so the advisory panel's new report is something that should be taken to heart if the well being of our planet is to prosper.
By eating less (or no) meat we can simultaneously get healthier and protect the planet.
It should be noted that Thursday's recommendations will be used by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture to update dietary guidelines later this year. While the Department could simply ignore the report, it is not likely to do so. The federal guidelines were first published in 1980 and are updated every five years.
In addition to the subject of meat, the panel also made new additions. They add that drinking as many as five cups of coffee a day isn't bad, and in fact is a good thing as it can reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Also, eating cholesterol-rich food like eggs is not a problem as long as you limit yourself to about 300 milligrams a day. Lastly, concerning Americans' acquired taste for soda and others sugary drinks, the DGAC says we should consume no more than about 200 calories worth of sugar a day.
Policymakers who manage nutrition programs and school lunches, for example, and dictate billions of dollars in spending, observe these guidelines.
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