It is no surprise that food choices affect health, but they can also have a major impact on the planet. The good news is that making better food choices for health reasons helps protect the environment from many of the damaging impacts of intensive farming practices. Here are three ways improving diets also helps safeguard the earth:
1. Fossil Fuel Reduction: Raising animals industrially requires vast amounts of natural resources that are rapidly depleting. According to Professor Steve Boyan of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, “the modern factory farming system is a prolific consumer of fossil fuel”. Today, instead of grazing on grass, many cows in the United States are raised on feedlots and consume a steady diet of corn. As much as 25 tons of corn are dumped every hour on large lots and each bushel requires 4.5 liters of oil to produce the fertilizer used to grow it. Boyan’s estimates show that a 544-kilogram factory-raised cow will have consumed 1,075 liters of oil in her lifetime.
A diet rich in plant-based foods helps curb fossil fuel use. According to Boyan, for example, substituting beans for beef uses less than four percent the amount of fossil fuel to produce the same amount of energy. Additionally, mainly eating plant-based food and only occasionally meat can lower the risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
2. Water conservation: According to U.N. Water, 70 percent of global water withdrawals are used for agriculture. As underground aquifers are depleting faster than they can be replenished, water conservation is imperative. Furthermore, groundwater is increasingly becoming polluted as untreated animal waste and agricultural chemicals seep into waterways. Sixty-five percent of California’s population is threatened by pollution to their drinking water from dairy cow manure, according to Boyan.
For every pound of beef one forgoes, between 9,500 to 19,000 liters of water are saved. According to the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN), switching from a meat-based diet to a sustainable Mediterranean model, rich in produce and legumes, could reduce a consumer’s water consumption by up to 50 percent.
3. Soil protection: Healthy soil is the foundation of successful agriculture. Yet, according to the Soil Association, evidence suggests that using artificial fertilizers suppresses the rich diversity of life in soil needed to keep it vibrant. Organic farming, on the other hand, encourages building healthy soil through practices like crop rotation, intercropping, cover cropping, and minimizing tillage. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) points out that these practices improve soil health and retention, as well as create a more stable farm system. Additionally, organic farming encourages a diverse ecosystem to maintain soil fertility and to keep pests under control naturally. These farms in turn become wildlife havens for beneficial insects and birds.
Choosing organic produce can reduce exposure to chemical residue from pesticides. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic produce carries significantly fewer pesticide residues than conventional produce. The Soil Association further indicates that organic produce has health benefits, including higher levels of Vitamin C, trace minerals, and anti-oxidants that prevent cancer.