Signs of Sustainability: An easily digestible climate crisis solution

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Recently, the term “climate crisis” has started to replace the term “climate change.” Some worry that this newer terminology will scare people. That is exactly the point - to communicate the seriousness of what is happening to our planet, which is dire. There is not a lot of time to reverse the problem before we experience cataclysmic environmental events. Yet oftentimes when we talk about what to do to stop the melting glaciers, ensure our coastline cities don’t end up under water and secure our children’s future, one of the top solutions is left out of the discussion. The solution is one that we don’t have to sit by idly and worry about, it’s one we can actively make happen every day, and it won’t cost us a penny – in fact, it may save us money. It is more powerful than everything else we can do, combined.


Perhaps it is an “inconvenient truth,” but the solution is staring up at us from our plates. Animal agriculture is one of the top contributors to greenhouse gas production and the climate crisis. It’s not just beef, it’s all animals raised for food, including those raised organically, “sustainably,” or free-range.


Changing to a plant-based diet has been called the most important thing we can do as individuals to save the environment. Not only will changing to a plant-based diet result in less greenhouse gas production, but it will also result in less resource usage and less pollution. According to the June 1, 2018 issue of the journal “Science” in the article Reducing foods environmental impacts through producers and consumers, “impacts of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of dietary change.”


The study also showed that meat, dairy, eggs, and aquaculture provide only 18 percent of our calories, 37 percent of our protein (note that all whole plant foods contain protein and that’s where most of our protein comes from) and take up 83 percent of our farmland. It also showed that moving from our current diets to one that excluded animal products would reduce land use by 76 percent, taking into account the production of plant-based proteins to replace animal-based proteins.


According to Joseph Poore, who led the research, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car. Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems. Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”


By the numbers
Back in 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) wrote a report that stated that animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas production (18 percent) than all transportation combined (14 percent). A report by the World Bank in 2009 said that animal agriculture is responsible for 51 percent of all greenhouse gas production. You can access both of these reports at healthyschoolfood.org/environmental.htm.


While it’s true that not all people have the choice of what to eat, and hunger is a serious problem, the solution is inexpensive. The USDA MyPlate Guide, for all of its political problems, shows that 75 percent of our food should already come from plants: vegetables, fruits, and grains. The remaining section is “protein,” and the choice for both our health and the environment is clear: legumes (beans, lentils, split peas, and things made from them such as tofu) instead of meat, cheese, eggs, fish, or seafood. Legumes are much less expensive than animal products, so the financial challenge is not moving from an omnivorous diet to a plant-based diet, the financial challenge is being able to afford healthy food in the first place. That is a whole other discussion, but clearly, all people should have the right to healthy food and enough food.


How do we make these changes in our own lives? There is no limit on the variety of foods we can enjoy – virtually any animal-based recipe can be made vegan. Use the internet to search for vegan recipes. Get healthy recipes at forksoverknives.com/recipes/. Watch “Forks Over Knives” on Netflix or “How Not to Die” at nutritionfacts.org/video/how-not-to-die/ for health inspiration. The Coalition for Healthy School Food has family size versions of our Cool School Food recipes - plant-powered entrees from around the world for all to enjoy at healthyschoolfood.org/recipes.htm.


This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.

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