Guest Column: This Earth Day, eat as if the environment matters

Heather Moore


People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

How do you plan to commemorate Earth Day, April 22? I’m going to pick up litter at a nearby river, recycle, use cloth shopping bags and, most important, eat environmentally friendly vegan foods. Research shows most animal-based foods, including meat, cheese, fish and eggs, come with a supersized carbon footprint and require colossal amounts of land, water and other resources.

According to the Environmental Working Group — which calculated the environmental impact of 20 conventionally grown foods — 59.6 pounds of carbon dioxide and methane are produced for every 2.2 pounds of beef eaten. That’s a lot of environmental damage just for a few hamburgers.

If you eat a cheeseburger, you’re doing even more damage to your health and to the planet because 29.7 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced for every 2.2 pounds of cheese you eat. To make matters worse, meat and dairy production also contribute to water pollution and other environmental problems. Just one cow can produce 140 pounds of manure each day. Factory-farm waste often seeps into our waterways, sickening people and killing aquatic life.

Manure from chicken farms in the “Broiler Belt,” extending from Eastern Texas through the southeastern United States to Maryland and Delaware, is virtually choking the Chesapeake Bay. According to the Pew Environment Group, the 523 million chickens raised and killed each year in Maryland and Delaware alone generate enough waste to fill the dome of the U.S. Capitol about 50 times, or almost once a week.

That really makes the “Save the Bay” T-shirt I wore when I was in high school, when I ate double-cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches, seem like a rather empty gesture.

The chicken poop really hits the fan when you consider that 70 percent of all agricultural land — 30 percent of the land surface of the planet — is used to raise animals for food. More than half of the world’s crops are used to feed farmed animals, who consume five times as much grain as all the humans in the United States.

But fish isn’t an environmentally friendly option, either. Every 2.2 pounds of canned tuna produces 13.4 pounds of greenhouse gasses. Farmed salmon have an even higher carbon footprint, because they’re fed wild-caught fish — it can take 3 pounds or more of wild-caught fish to produce a single pound of farmed salmon.

Fortunately, vegan foods have a child-size carbon footprint and require few resources compared to animal-based foods. For example, it takes 10 times less fossil fuel — and nearly 4,000 fewer gallons of water per day — to produce plant-based foods than to produce animal-based ones.

If you want to be green — on Earth Day and every other day of the year — then eat green. Enjoy fresh produce, eat bean burritos instead of beef burritos and explore new vegan foods, such as marinated tofu kebabs, curried chickpeas and falafel. If you’re going to a ball game, order a veggie dog rather than a hot dog — pork is the fourth most environmentally harmful food on the EWG’s list. If you’re going to pick up litter by a waterway, remember that factory-farm runoff is a leading source of water pollution and opt for a vegan lunch, such as a veggie burger or some lentil soup. The planet, animals and your body will be better off.