Eat lower on the food chain – it's good for the planet.
As poet-essayist-farmer Wendell Berry poignantly noted, "How we eat determines how the Earth is used." The American diet is notorious for the high percentage derived from animals, which stands in sharp contrast to most people in the world whose diets are overwhelmingly plant-based. A meat-based diet requires up to ten times the land area to feed a person relative to a plant-based diet.
Much of the 13 million hectares of tropical forest lost each year is converted to agricultural uses (including land for cattle and animal feed), permanently destroying essential habitat for biodiversity while releasing more than a billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. And not only is terrestrial biodiversity habitat being lost to conversion, but also aquatic species are threatened by animal-based feed production diverting water from and dumping wastes into watersheds.
Additionally, the large, and still-expanding human consumption of marine fisheries is a major threat to marine biodiversity. At present, fish and other aquatic resources provide less than one percent of the food calories, and five percent of the protein calories, consumed by the world's population. Yet, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, already, 70 percent of global marine fish stocks have reached or exceeded biological limits for commercial exploitation.
IN DEPTH: Disturbing Costs of Unsustainable Fishing
But there are ways to change these trends. If and when you choose seafood, there are several charts recommending less threatened species to eat. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's seafood buying best practices are posted on their Seafood Watch web site, including a wallet-size list that can be downloaded. Also available for free download from the Internet are National Audubon Society's Seafood Guide, and Environmental Defense's list of what's best to choose and best to avoid, the Sustainable Seafood Report, prepared with the Chefs Collaborative.
LEARN MORE: Try CI's Green Dining Guide.
You may want to think twice about eating shrimp. Shrimp harvesting results in one of the largest "by-catch" waste streams of any fishing operation. Up to 10 pounds of fish are destroyed in catching each pound of shrimp, and annually tens of thousands of endangered turtles and thousands of dolphins are killed by shrimp nets. Additionally aquaculture shrimp farms are associated with other sets of problems, including destruction and pollution of biodiversity-rich mangroves and estuaries, and high fish feed requirements.
ARTICLE: Q&A: The fisheries crisis
Clearly, food preferences and choices are highly individual in nature. The hope, however, is that each individual will begin to take into consideration creative opportunities to provide servings that are ecologically less damaging, as well as healthier for the person. This does not necessarily mean having to adopt a strict vegetarian lifestyle and foregoing animal protein. Rather, this recommendation builds upon research findings that people living in North America currently consume ten times more animal protein than necessary for a complete nutritional diet.
Estimates prepared for the Center for a New American Dream's Turn the Tide program indicate that a person replacing one beef meal each week will, on average, save more than 40,000 gallons of water and some 70 tons of grain, and keep 300 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
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