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We have an energy crisis.

There’s our addiction to oil, to be sure, but I’m talking about another addiction that contributes to our wasteful use of natural resources and a decline in our overall wellbeing. Food is energy, and I’m talking about our addiction to meat.

Several years ago, in an effort to lose weight and generally feel healthier, I started learning about the impact that my food choices have on my physical and emotional health. I read a lot, but I also tried a lot of different things to figure out what would work for my body. I didn’t set out to be a vegetarian or pescatarian (I occasionally eat seafood). But that’s where I ended up.

It wasn’t until later that I learned about how my food choices affect my community – local and global. So for me, the environmental effects of a meat-free diet just help to reinforce a decision I already made. But for someone else, it might be the spark that lights a new path. Or it might be a reason to add meat-free days into your week.*

For all of us, it’s important to know that some of the foods we eat every day are substantially, even shockingly, less energy efficient than others:

  • Cattle consume 16 pounds of grain for every pound of meat they yield.
  • Producing a single pound of beef also uses the same amount of water that an average person uses showering for an entire year (approx. 5200 gallons for both). A pound of produce requires around 25 gallons to grow.
  • It takes 11 times the amount of fossil fuel to create one calorie of animal protein versus plant protein.
  • Livestock contributes 18% of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, which outweighs all forms of transportation combined.
  • Grains and vegetables are a vastly more productive use of land compared with meat. The same acreage can produce beef to feed one person or wheat to feed 15, chicken to feed one or potatoes to feed 11. Yet 30% of the earth’s land mass is now used to raise animals for food, at the sacrifice of hundreds of millions of acres of forest.

You may have heard that switching to a meat-free diet is better for the environment than trading in an SUV for a Prius. You can see why: eating higher on the food chain is hugely inefficient. Plants are literally nature’s power plants, converting dirt and sunlight into life that we can consume. Fruits and nuts and seeds are batteries, storing that energy for future use. Meat is the middle man, and meat is greedy.

Unlike a Prius, there’s unfortunately no gas gauge or price at the pump to give us measurable insight into what we’re saving with a meat-free diet. But you can definitely count on your good choices making a positive difference for the environment – and on feeling an even bigger payoff in your own health and wellbeing.

*If giving up meat completely is too high a hurdle, but you want your diet choices to support positive change, there are two other issues around food and energy use to put on the table: organic production and localizing your diet.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a great read and covers both of these in the context of her personal journey living as a locavore for a year. Her husband offers technical sidebars throughout with tidbits like this:

“If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meat and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.”

We don’t need to drill more, we need to grill less…meat. Grilled vegetables are delicious 🙂