Want to Help Save the Planet This Earth Day? Try Eating Less Meat

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If Earth Day is inspiring you to take some action to improve the health of the planet, some experts suggest you might want to start by examining your diet. Thinking about having a steak for dinner? Well, know that the pollution generated to produce your T-bone is roughly equivalent to that created by driving a small car for 29 miles. Replace it with a veggie burger this evening and it’s more like driving that car only about three miles.

Several recent studies have looked to further quantify the environmental impacts of eating diets high in animal products versus eating a more plant-based diet. “Per gram of protein, the production of beef and lamb generates about 250 times as much greenhouse gas emissions as the production of legumes, and the production of pork, poultry and dairy generates about 40 times more per gram of protein,” says Marco Springmann, Ph.D., a researcher at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and lead author of a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He and his colleagues found that if the world went vegan, greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by a remarkable 70 percent by the year 2050.

Another recent study looked at how the production of fake meats (such as veggie burgers, meatless bacon and imitation chicken strips) compared to real meat production. Since making those fake meats often still involves heavy processing, the researchers were pleased to find that producing them still generates about 10 times less greenhouse gas emissions than producing the equivalent in beef products.

In addition to improving the health of the planet, switching to a more plant-based diet can do lots of good things for your own health. In fact, Springmann’s study also found that if the world went vegan, 8.1 million deaths would be avoided by 2050. And while no one thinks it’s realistic to suggest that the whole world suddenly go vegan, even small changes in your own diet can add up to big benefits globally.

“Reducing the amount of red meat in our diets is one of the most effective ways of reducing one’s carbon footprint,” says Springmann. “Just cutting down to no more than half a serving of red meat per day could reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by about one third by 2050.” Pass the tofu!

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.