A diet for a healthy world

Clair Brown and Pearl McLeod explain how changing your diet can change the world.

Clair Brown
25 May 2018
Vegetable garden.
Photo by Kenan Kitchen.

To counter the encroaching global climate crisis, significant lifestyle changes are required of those who live in affluent countries. A group of Buddhist leaders said the following on the eve of the Paris climate talks: “We are at a crucial crossroads where our survival and that of other species is at stake as a result of our own actions.”

This is especially true when it comes to our diets, because the food we produce and consume is destroying the ecosystems we depend upon for survival.

The US uses approximately one half of its land for agriculture, of which the majority is used to raise livestock — such as cattle, hogs, and poultry — or for crops consumed by livestock. More than 90 million acres of agricultural land is used to produce corn, which is largely used to feed livestock. This is also true on an international scale. Much of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is for grazing and growing soybeans, of which 80% is used as livestock feed.

Fruits, vegetables, and nuts create less than a third of chicken emissions — and a twelfth of beef.

Meanwhile, the meat industry employs outmoded, unsustainable practices by using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, monocultures, GMOs, and inhumane treatment of livestock. Not to mention it has an enormous carbon footprint. Industrial agriculture degrades the soil, water, and atmosphere, harming wildlife and humans.

Another major problem is that more than 30% of the food we produce is wasted. So-called “imperfect” produce is left in the field or discarded on the way to market or at the store. Edible food is left to rot in our refrigerators and ends up in landfills where it emits greenhouse gases. We can all do our part to reduce waste by using leftovers and eating the fresh produce we buy.

With 7.6 billion people on earth, the demand for food is constantly on the rise. It’s easy to feel like we can’t make a difference. But with right intention—the practice of aligning our lives with our values—we can reduce harm to the planet by eating less meat and moving toward a plant-based diet. We can also change our agricultural systems to heal the earth, as we heal ourselves.

Even one person can make a difference by eating sustainably. Here are some of the contributions we can make to the health of the planet (as well as our own):

  • Compared to beans, beef requires 20 times more land and creates 20 times more greenhouse gases to produce the same amount of protein.
  • Eating 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of meat every day—about one serving for most meat eaters—emits approximately 7.2 kg of carbon dioxide, which can be eliminated with a vegetarian diet.
  • Adopting a plant-based diet frees up valuable agricultural land to grow foods eaten by humans instead of livestock, which helps reduce world hunger.

The type of meat we eat also makes a difference. Beef creates more than double the emissions of pork, and close to quadruple the emissions of chicken. Lamb is even worse than beef. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts create less than a third of chicken emissions (and a twelfth of beef).

As a first step, we can drop beef and lamb from our diet and limit our daily consumption of meat to less than four ounces.

Caring about food production workers is also an important aspect of deciding what to eat. These industry jobs are grueling and take a physical and psychological toll on workers. As corporations force high production rates, workers slaughter and process animals for hours with little time for breaks. Data shows that workers in the US meat industry sustain abnormally high rates of injury from machinery, tools, chemicals, and pathogens.

Recognizing how the food we eat is connected to other living beings can help us compassionately choose sustainable food options. By eating mindfully, we support local, affordable agriculture and help people around the world enjoy eco-friendly and nutritious foods.

Just as little things matter in our personal relationships, little things matter in our relationship with the earth. We can become more aware of our part in the food system by reducing animal products in our diet, reading labels carefully, and buying food grown closer to home.

Our choices reverberate throughout the food system. We can be visible proof that adopting sustainable food habits is doable, healthy, and enjoyable. When we pay attention to our impact, we are prioritizing compassion for ourselves, others, and the environment.

Clair Brown

Clair Brown

Clair Brown, Ph.D., an economics professor at UC Berkeley, is the author of Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science (Bloombury Press, 2017).