DIET AND CLIMATE CHANGE
If you are reading this column in Waco, the odds are very good that you wish to take some action to combat anthropogenic climate change. I make this bold assertion because of the results of a recent Yale University poll: 54% of McLennan County residents believe that global warming is already harming U.S. citizens, while 64% believe that future generations will be harmed.
In two previous Trib columns I described methods of lightening one’s carbon footprint in the transportation and the energy sectors. This column will explain a step anyone can take to slash emissions, no matter their age, sex, or life circumstances—with essentially no cost.
The secret: decreasing the amount of meat, eggs and dairy products in one’s diet.
Meat production. A meat-containing diet requires release of a large volume of global warming greenhouse gases (GHGs) because of livestock methane production, energy consumption to grow feed, land usage, and manure/fertilizer nitrous oxide content. A comprehensive study of the direct and indirect emissions associated with meat production found that over 50% of global emissions derive from livestock. In fact, if cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s 3rd largest emitting country!
Emissions by dietary type. Human diets producing less GHGs than standard Western omnivorous diets have been classified into multiple levels. To clarify the confusing terminology around diets, note that a vegan consumes vegetables but no animal products, or by- products, including milk or eggs. A lacto vegetarian eats vegetables plus dairy products, an ovo vegetarian eats vegetables plus eggs, a lacto-ovo vegetarian eats vegetables plus dairy and eggs, a pollotarian eats vegetables plus poultry, and a pescatarian eats vegetables plus fish.
Multiple studies in the peer-reviewed scientific literature (the gold standard) have determined that food-related GHG emissions are directly correlated with the amount of meat in the diet. A study by Scarborough et al in 2014 found the following pounds CO2 equivalents per day emitted by diet type: heavy meat 15.8, medium meat 12.4, low meat 10.3, pescatarian 8.6, vegetarian 8.4, and vegan 6.4.
Therefore, a vegan diet is associated with a striking 60% lower GHG emission than a heavy meat diet. Further, some meats are worse than others in terms of their associated emissions. These animal products are listed in order of decreasing emissions: lamb, beef, cheese, pork, farmed salmon, turkey, chicken, canned tuna, and eggs.
Positive health impact. Although some have worried that a vegetarian or vegan diet lacks protein, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that only 10 to 15% of one’s daily calories need to come from protein, and that a diet primarily of plants can easily meet this requirement. Furthermore, it is now known that a plant-based diet lowers one’s risk of coronary artery disease, stroke, diabetes mellitus and some cancers.
Additional benefits. Secondary benefits of a diet with decreased meat consumption (plant-based diet) include decreased deforestation, and decreased water consumption, especially important in this time of increasing drought worldwide. McLennan County, in fact, is frequently classified as suffering drought conditions, albeit typically in the milder end of the drought scale. Finally, it is well known that animals eaten by humans, from fish to cows, have families and relationships, and suffer pain, loneliness and death as a result of our consumption practices.
Summary: In his authoritative, comprehensive book Drawdown, Paul Hawken ranked all solutions for cutting global GHG emissions, the world’s most urgent task of this century. Surprisingly, out of 80 modalities, consumption of a “plant-based diet” was ranked 4th in effectiveness, following only refrigerant management, wind turbines, and reduced food waste. And that majority of McLennan County residents concerned about climate change, may contribute to this struggle in many ways—from going fully vegan to simply eating one meat- free meal per week. Every such action, no matter how small, when multiplied by the billions of citizens worldwide, is a potent contribution to overcoming mankind’s greatest challenge.
Alan D. Northcutt, M.D.
May 22, 2018
Alan Northcutt is a Waco physician who does volunteer Pathology work in Kenya, East Africa, and is Director of the Waco Friends of Peace/Climate.
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