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Food Choices: What You Eat Affects the Climate - November 22, 2011
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cowWhat did you have to eat today? If you’re an average American, you likely saw a lot of meat and dairy on your plate. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that the typical American consumes around 127 pounds of meat per year – on average, that’s 40 percent more than other developed countries. The health implications of this are well known… but what about its environmental impacts?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released a study comparing the carbon emissions of various foods, looking at everything from the inputs for animal feed to how we dispose of uneaten waste. They found that animal products and cheese had, by far, the greatest impact on our environment. The reason? Their production and processing are much more resource- and energy-intensive than produce, and the byproducts (e.g., methane from cows) much more harmful. 

meat eaters guide to health and climate change

Figure 1: Adapted from EWG's Meat Eaters' Guide to Climate Change + Health

Bottom line? Tonight’s cheeseburger has harmful effects far beyond just an expanding waistline.

What can I do?

Even if you’re one of the many Americans who can’t imagine saying goodbye to your favorite chili dog, there’s a lot you can do to reduce the impact of your food choices. Here are a few tips that the EWG put together to minimize the damage done by your meals.

  • Eat less meat and cheese. You don’t have to give up animal products entirely to lessen your environmental footprint: skipping just one hamburger a week has a comparable impact as driving 320 fewer miles in a year. Many Americans choose to participate in Meatless Mondays, where they forgo meat and cheese one day a week. This kind of action can have a powerful collective impact without making you feel deprived. Give it a try!
  • Waste less. Discarded food represents an average of 20 percent of total lifecycle emissions for food. Buying and preparing only what you’ll consume can go a long way toward decreasing the impact of your meals.
  • Buy local. EWG analysis showed that imported cheeses had a 46 percent higher carbon footprint than that produced in the US. Transport via air drastically increases the impact of your food; by buying locally, you can avoid these emissions.

To find out more about the impact of your food choices, visit:

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