Celebrate Earth Day by putting less meat on your plate

Earth Day has traditionally been the one day each year that people band together to take action for the environment. We bike to campus, we redouble our recycling efforts and we pledge to be more conscientious about the amount of waste we produce. But did you know you can help save the planet every time you sit down for breakfast, lunch and dinner? It’s true; you can join millions of others who are doing something to help the environment by eating more plant-based meals. Simply put, the increasing global demand for meat is fueling the growth of factory farms to the tune of billions of animals raised in conditions that none of us are proud of. In addition to being bad for animal welfare, these industrial operations wreak havoc on the environment. Numerous studies reveal that animal agriculture contributes to some of the most critical environmental issues, like pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate change and water use. As the international relief organization Oxfam notes, it takes significantly more land, water and oil to produce meat than it does to produce plant-based foods. Animals are typically fed massive amounts of grains in order to yield a comparatively small amount of meat.

So if you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint this Earth Day, start by reducing your “carbon hoofprint.”

According to a 2013 United Nations report, animal agriculture produces about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one reason the Sierra Club recognizes the importance of meat reduction, stating, “If Americans reduced meat consumption by just 20 percent, it would be as though we all switched from a sedan to a hybrid.”

And when it comes to water conservation, we should think in terms of not only how much water we use, but how much water we eat. That’s right; one study reported that the water used to produce one hamburger is equivalent to 30 average American showers. And our planet’s beef with water overconsumption isn’t just with beef. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it takes 9 gallons of water just to slaughter one chicken — and that doesn’t even include all the water used to raise the bird. In light of such inefficiency, it comes as no surprise that the UN recommends that we “replace meat with another source of protein” as a smart, water-saving solution. Perhaps the easiest — and tastiest — way to help the environment is practicing the three R’s: “reducing” or “replacing” consumption of animal products and “refining” our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards. Millions of Americans are already taking personal action to reduce their meat consumption through simple initiatives such as Meatless Monday and Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6 — or by adopting vegetarian or “flexitarian” lifestyles. The current high levels of meat consumption in the United States support inhumane practices in industrial factory farms and push small family farmers out of business. Eating less meat is better for animals, creates less waste and pollution and places more value on humane and sustainable agriculture, which benefits family farmers and generates more income for rural communities.

Best of all, eating more meat-free meals is affordable, accessible and easier than ever. Dining halls always have delicious meat-free options. Grocery stores stock meat-free must-haves such as protein-packed beans, lentils and vegetables.

Our present environmental problems can oftentimes seem overwhelming, so after a day of Earth Day activities, we all tend to feel good about our individual efforts. Thankfully, each of us has the power to make the planet greener every time we sit down to eat by simply putting more vegetables and less meat on our plates.