DONATE
CLASSES
CERTIFICATION PROGRAM
EMPLOYEE WELLNESS
PUBLICATIONS
MEDIA ROOM
NUTRITION INFO
ONLINE COMMUNITY

FIND A CLASS

Select state:

Country:

Select one or more topics:
Diabetes Initiative
Cancer Project
Kickstart Your Health
Kids Health

Connect with Us

 

 

The Physicians Committee




Eating for the Health of You and the Earth

April 22, 2013, marks the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day and we can make positive changes by considering how our dietary choices impact the planet. Diet is an important tool for health and to achieve environmental sustainability. Our current food policies and dietary habits have put us on a path towards an environmental and public health crisis. The population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and we will need to increase agricultural output by 70 percent if dietary consumption patterns do not change.1 Environmental specialists from agencies such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Bank Group have declared that greenhouse gas emissions from all livestock operations account for as low as 18 percent2 and up to 51 percent3 of those produced by humans. To avert this scenario, the conversation should shift from how much food we produce to what we produce, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which found that “a substantial reduction of (environmental) impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”4

Water

Globally, agriculture is the largest user of freshwater resources, accounting for 70 percent of water use and 93 percent of depletion.5 It takes nearly 420 gallons of water to produce one pound of chicken.6 That is approximately the same amount of water in 20 average kiddie pools. The Standard American Diet requires 4,200 gallons—191 kiddie pools’ worth—of water per day. A person following a vegan diet requires 300 gallons a day.7

Meat and dairy product operations produce more than three times the amount of sewage produced by the entire U.S. population.8 According to the EPA and USDA, animal feeding operations produce approximately 500 million tons of manure each year, with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) generating 47-60 percent of this amount.9 Manure and waste is stored in pits and ultimately applied to farm fields as fertilizer. The manure can make its way into the local water supply and also pollutes the air. Manure contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and often bacteria that can endanger the environment and human health. In some cases, manure spills that reach waterways can kill all aquatic life.10

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

With global meat and dairy production expected to double within the next 50 years, the FAO cautions that the environmental impact of meat “must be cut by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level.”11 Meat and dairy products are responsible for 9 percent of human-induced emissions of CO2, mostly coming from the digestive process.12 Another big contributor to greenhouse gas is animal feed, which requires large amounts of chemical fertilizer. Corn, commonly used in animal feed, uses more nitrogen fertilizer than any other crop. Animal operations also use a great deal of energy for everyday functions. Other greenhouse gases, primarily nitrous oxide, arise mainly from the microbial degradation of manure.13

Conclusion

As the numbers of farm animals raised for meat, egg, and dairy production increase, so do emissions from their production. By 2050, global farm animal production is expected to double from present levels.14  Research shows that animal products are a major contributor to environmental damage, such as fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, deforestation, and erosion. By transitioning to a plant-based diet, humans would use far fewer resources to meet the nutritional needs of the world’s population. Eighty percent of agricultural land currently used for livestock could be used to grow crops for direct human consumption.

References

1. Diouf J. Agriculture to 2050 – The Challenges Ahead. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2009. Available at: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/36193/icode/. Accessed March 21, 2013.

2. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, et al. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome; 2006:xxi.

3. Goodland R, Anhang J. Livestock and Climate Change. World Watch Magazine. Washington, DC; 2009;10-19.

4. Hertwich E, van der Voet E, Suh S, et al. Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials. United Nations Environmental Programme; 2010:82.

5. Hertwich E, van der Voet E, Suh S, et al. Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials. United Nations Environmental Programme; 2010:2.

6. Pimentel D, Houser J, Preiss E, et al. Water Resources: Agriculture, the Environment, and Society. BioScience. 47;2:97-106.

7. World Watch Institute. Meat, Now it’s not personal! World Watch Magazine. Washington, DC; 2004;12-20.

8. Food & Water Watch. Factory Farm Nation. Washington, DC; 2010;1.

9. US Environmental Protection Agency. Compliance and Enforcement National Priority: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). December 11, 2009:1.

10. Food & Water Watch. Factory Farm Nation. Washington, DC; 2010;2.

11. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, et al. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome; 2006;xx.

12. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, et al. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome; 2006;xxi.

13. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, et al. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome; 2006;xxi.

14. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, et al. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome; 2006:iii.

This site does not provide medical or legal advice. This Web site is for informational purposes only.
Full Disclaimer | Privacy Policy

The Physicians Committee
5100 Wisconsin Ave., N.W., Ste.400, Washington DC, 20016
Phone: 202-686-2210     Email: pcrm@pcrm.org