Turns out, Americans may be making smart, eco-friendly decisions in the grocery store after all.
The National Resources Defense Council recently released a report on American food consumption, which found that Americans reduced their intake of beef — famously the most carbon-intense food on the planet — by 19 percent between 2005 and 2014. For anyone who cares about the environmental footprint of their food choices, this is decidedly good news.
America’s Changes in Consumption
Americans chose to eat a lot less meat in 2014 than they did in 2005. In fact, they ate about ⅕ less meat in the former year than they did in the latter. According to the NRDC, this will result in a huge reduction in carbon emissions from the US.
“Americans consumed 19 percent less beef, avoiding an estimated 185 MMT of climate-warming pollution or roughly the equivalent of the annual tailpipe pollution of 39 million cars,” the report states.
And it wasn’t just beef that saw decreased consumption. Milk, pork, high-fructose corn syrup and shellfish consumption also went down.
Image via NRDC
The reason behind the shift is still up for debate. According to the New York Times, some industry experts attribute the changes to steeper prices of red meat. Droughts that plagued the region increased the cost of beef, as did increasing rates of export to other countries. Additionally, about one quarter of consumers attested that it was concerns about cholesterol and saturated fat that had them reaching for alternative protein sources.
Beef vs. Alternatives
Beef is notoriously horrible for the environment. In addition to the methane gasses released by cattle, numerous other factors make beef an unsustainable option (at least, beef as it is raised today). In order to feed cows, farmers must harvest millions of acres of corn and soy, resource-intensive crops that are often heavily treated with fossil fuel-based pesticides and insecticides. Then, of course, there is the loss of arable land associated with massive Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, often known as CAFOs.
In fact, even just switching from beef to chicken can have a massive positive impact on the environment. In simplified terms, beef production emits 26.45 kilogram equivalents of CO₂ for every 1 kg of beef, which chicken only emits 5.05.
What Foods to Eat (And What Foods Not to Eat) To Save the Planet
When it comes to a diet that can improve the state of the planet by reducing carbon emissions, the waters are murky. One thing, however, is certain: Eating mainstream beef is bad for the planet. Swap out beef for plant-based proteins whenever possible, but don’t swap it out for dairy. (In fact, most types of dairy have a C02 emissions rating higher than chicken or pork!). You should also avoid some resource-intensive vegetables, like asparagus (big shocker: asparagus is worse for the planet than chicken!), as much as possible. Here are some swaps you might consider making, according to the EWG:
- Swap out salmon (11.9 kgs carbon emissions) for beans (2 kgs)
- Swap out cheese (13.5 kgs) for eggs (4.8 kgs)
- Swap out pork (12.1 kgs) for tofu (2.0 kgs)
- Swap out turkey (10.9 kgs) for peanut butter (2.5 kgs)
- Swap out canned tuna (6.1 kgs) for lentils (our clear winner at 0.9 kgs)
Finally, eating local should be your first priority if you’re trying to go gentle on planet Earth. Even if you just can’t give up eating a burger once in awhile, you’ll be doing the earth a huge favor by simply choosing a local, grass-fed producer.
“Most beef cattle in the United States today are finished on grain in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs),” states the NRDC report. “Growing this cattle feed (primarily corn and soy) requires large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, which, in turn, require significant inputs of fossil fuels. Alternative models of beef production, such as intensive rotational cattle grazing, can help sequester carbon in the soil and provide numerous other health and environmental benefits compared to CAFOs.”