Lowering the Carbon Cost of Your Diet

chopping vegetables
Source: Pexels

Do you want to increase the vegetarian component of your diet, whether for budget reasons, health reasons, or to protect the climate?

Maybe you are one of 7 in 10 Americans already doing your best to trim your personal greenhouse gas emissions—driving an electric car, putting up solar panels, or composting at home. None of us can do everything, but one option for helping out the climate at home is to eat fewer animal products, especially those from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In the U.S. alone, there are 21,000 CAFOs, and 90% of animals destined for human consumption are raised in these factories. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater resources, pesticide use, and airborne emissions, CAFOs are notably detrimental to our environment. Read on to see how limiting animal products can help lower your carbon footprint.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

One of the most widely-publicized environmental liabilities of animal agriculture is the greenhouse gas emissions that come from intensively farming animals. At nearly every process along the way, an assortment of dangerous gasses are emitted. It’s often a compounded problem because land is cleared and deforested to make room for animal farming, decreasing carbon dioxide absorption; and that land is then actively used for activities that release greenhouse gasses.

Certain animals, such as cows and sheep, belch methane, and the manure of all animal species decomposes and releases both methane and CO2. Transport and slaughter require additional fossil fuels. The three largest contributing sectors are beef, lamb, and dairy (specifically cheese), according to Our World Data and the Environmental Working Group. In contrast, life cycle assessments of most plant-based products have been found to have significantly lower carbon footprints.

Freshwater and Waste

While human bodies require on average a ½ gallon of water/day, fresh water given to sustain animals used for agriculture amounts to 20% of all global freshwater. Beef cattle require an average of 12 gallons of fresh water a day; cows utilized for milk production require 30-50 gallons (the size of an average bathtub); and pigs and sheep require between 3-7 gallons/day depending on gestation status and temperature. In addition to the animals’ water requirements, the operations themselves are incredibly water intensive because water is used to flush away manure from floors, to wash both live and slaughtered animals, to water the crops used to feed animals as compared to crops we directly eat, and during processing (such as chickens that are scalded in hot water before feathers are plucked).

What about output? Dairy cows excrete ~100 lbs of manure a day, beef cattle excrete up to 60-75 lbs, and pigs excrete ~11 lbs. For comparison, humans excrete about ¼ lb. While human waste water is required to be treated in water treatment plants, livestock waste does not have this same requirement, and may contain bacteria, heavy metals, medications, antibiotics, and hormones that enter our groundwater supply and waterways.

Pesticide Use

When people think of pesticides, they often think of fruits and vegetables. But meat and milk can contain high amounts of pesticides because these substances bioaccumulate in animal tissue. Glyphosate concentrations are allowed to be more than 100X higher on crops used to feed animals as compared to crops we directly eat. For example, upper limits on carrots for human consumption are 5 ppm, while upper limits on forage, fodder, and hay for livestock are 300 ppm. The World Health Organization reports that “More than 90% of human exposure to dioxins is through the food supply, mainly meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish.” Many of the pesticides used in the U.S. on feed crops (such as atrazine and paraquat) have been banned by other countries. In addition to documented human health effects of pesticides, widespread pesticide application threatens biodiversity and endangers the health of ecosystems.

Airborne Emissions

While most other emitting industries are regulated, industrial animal agriculture has exploited a loophole for nearly two decades. In 2005, under the Bush administration, the “Air Consent Agreement” was enacted. CAFOs agreed to have their emissions monitored by paying a fee in exchange for the EPA releasing them from any federal or state liability for past and future emissions violations until the study was completed. 90% of animal feeding operations signed up and encouraged other producers to sign up. Animal industries that fall under this study include pigs, broiler chickens, egg laying operations, and dairies. Emissions include methane, ammonia, VOCs, hydrogen sulfide, and particulates. Per the EPA itself, “reporting of air emissions from animal waste at farms is not required under EPCRA [Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act].” Eighteen years later, the study has yet to be completed and the EPA has failed to produce any report that outlines actions the industries need to take under the Clean Air Act.

Tips and Resources

Knowing all this, what can individuals do to reduce their meat and dairy consumption? Try the following:

  • Check out the charts published by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan that rank foods in terms of their greenhouse gas emissions and choose foods that are more planet friendly.
  • Choose plant foods when you can: the vast majority are significantly less water intensive than animal-based foods.
  • Try out different non-dairy milks; charts published by Our World in Data show some environmental footprints of dairy and a selection of non-dairy milks.
  • Start a Climate Victory Garden at home.
  • Consider taking part in Meatless Mondays or other challenges to reduce the animal products in your diet, such as Veganuary.
  • Sprout beans at home to obtain a great source of protein, fiber, and minerals.
  • Grow microgreens! These take up minimal space, grow quickly, and can be higher in micronutrients than their larger counterparts.

However you choose to boost the plant-based content of your diet, you can feel confident your meatless choices have a positive impact on the planet, and you might just save some money too.

From Green American Magazine Issue