Climate change is happening. But what if we could slow or even reverse it? The truth is, you can make a bigger difference for the planet than you probably ever imagined — starting with your knife and fork!
By Ocean Robbins • Adapted from 31-Day Food Revolution: Heal Your Body, Feel Great, & Transform Your World. Get your copy here now.
What we eat impacts our health and the health of our children. But its impact is much bigger than that. It also affects the entire planet.
How Our Climate Is Changing
The facts are sobering.
Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and other gases are building up and surrounding our planet like a blanket, trapping heat and destabilizing our climate.
Rising global temperatures are causing the polar ice caps to melt and the oceans to rise, threatening the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people.
Climate change is bringing desertification and droughts to some areas and floods to others, making it increasingly difficult to reliably grow the food upon which our lives depend.
While some people debate what’s causing climate change and how important human activities are in driving it, one thing is clear to just about everyone: It’s happening.
And if we can do anything to ameliorate this growing crisis, future generations have every right to expect us to do it.
If you’re like me, you may feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem. Sometimes I feel less like a drop in the bucket and more like a drop in the sea.
How can any one of us measure the impact of our own choices against those wrought by the totality of humanity?
Many companies and political leaders have resisted facing the enormity of the dangers that climate change presents and acknowledging the role that human activities are playing because they fear that serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could have a devastating impact on the global economy.
And those concerns are real.
The Cost of Improving Our Climate
In 2008, the International Energy Agency issued a report titled “Energy Technology Perspectives: Scenarios and Strategies to 2050.”
This meta-analysis explored the economic impact of stabilizing global CO2 levels at 450 parts per million — a level that many scientists say is needed to help prevent devastating droughts and flooding induced by rising sea levels.
The report concluded that this could happen through massive investment in new systems of transportation, energy production, and energy efficiency — at a long-term cost of up to $45 trillion.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like an awful lot of money to me. Sure, it would all feed into the economy, and it would create a lot of jobs. But the cost sounds more than a little daunting.
However, what if we could slow or even reverse climate change without it costing a cent?
What if there were ways we could take action, individually as well as collectively, that might actually save money while improving health and quality of life for humanity?
It turns out, there just might be.
Can We Help Fight Climate Change by Shifting What We Eat?
In 2009, researchers from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency offered a ray of hope.
They published a study in Climatic Change in which they weighed the costs of large-scale CO2 reduction through changes in energy infrastructure and compared them to what changes in agriculture could accomplish.
The researchers concluded that if the average human shifted to a low-meat diet (which they defined as one serving of beef or three servings of chicken or eggs per week), there would be tremendous savings in greenhouse gas emissions.
This shift would free up approximately 15 million square kilometers of farmland, which could, in turn, be planted with vegetation that would mop up carbon dioxide.
The bottom line? According to this study, scaling back on foods like beef-burgers and bacon could, over the course of decades, wipe $20 trillion off the ultimate cost of fighting climate change — effectively cutting it in half.
The researchers also referenced how substituting beans for burgers could lead to dramatic reductions in rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, and other chronic, diet-caused illnesses.
And this, in turn, could lead to profound economic savings. Right now, the world spends more than $60 trillion on health care every decade. Much of this goes to treatment of chronic and preventable disease.
If global dietary patterns shifted, we could not only take a massive bite out of climate change, but we could also save untold lives while reaping immense economic benefits and huge improvements in our health.
How Your Food Choices Affect Your Climate
Why does modern animal agriculture have such an enormous effect on greenhouse gas emissions?
It’s not as if cows are driving around all day in air-conditioned Hummers or forgetting to turn the lights off when they leave the room.
Remember that most of the world’s meat, eggs, and dairy are produced in factory farms — what the livestock industry calls concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
In these establishments, large numbers of cows, pigs, chickens, and other livestock are packed together in extremely close quarters.
Instead of eating grass, leaves, bugs, roots, or anything resembling their natural diet, the animals are fed a diet based heavily on genetically modified corn and soybeans. Instead of their manure fertilizing grasslands, it piles up in massive lagoons that pollute nearby air, rivers, and groundwater.
Most of the pigs and chickens that humans eat spend their entire lives in CAFOs. Many cows start on pasture but are “finished” by being fed corn and soy in feedlots, where they gain much of their weight.
After cows come into the feedlot, they gain enough weight to produce about one new pound of beef for every 12 pounds of feed input. Pigs produce about a pound of flesh for every 7 pounds of feed, while for chickens, it’s about a pound of flesh for every 4 pounds of feed.
An Incredible Amount of Food Is Being Wasted
In all of these cases, the majority of the feed is being, essentially, wasted. CAFOs are like protein factories in reverse.
Most industry publications compare feed to animal weight gain, noting that cattle in feedlots typically gain about a pound of total weight for every six pounds of feed. But keep in mind that less than half of the animal’s weight is edible meat — which is why it takes about twelve pounds of feed to produce a pound of beef.
According to Richard Oppenlander in his 2012 book, Comfortably Unaware, 80% of the world’s soy crop and 70% of the grain grown in the United States goes to feed livestock raised for human consumption.
Cycling calories from plants through livestock is inherently wasteful. And it takes a lot of land to do it.
In total, livestock systems (including pasture, animal farms, and land growing food for animals) occupy 45% of the total surface area of the planet.
Worldwide, we use about eight times as much land to grow food for animals as we do to grow food directly for humans.
Whether or not you want to go veg, you can eat less meat and move away from industrialized animal agriculture — and make a very real impact.
In a 2018 study reported in Science, researchers analyzed 40,000 farms in 119 countries. They concluded that animal agriculture occupies 83% of total agricultural land.
They also determined that if, theoretically, the entire world’s human population went vegan, we would save an area of land as large as the United States, China, the European Union, and Australia combined.
Animal Agriculture Contributes to Deforestation
One of the primary sources of CO2 emissions in the world today is deforestation.
Huge areas of forest, including vast swaths of tropical rainforest, have been cut down or burned in order to create land on which to graze cattle or to grow livestock feed.
Forests that previously absorbed carbon from the atmosphere are now emitting it as vegetation is degraded or incinerated.
And as significant as CO2 emissions are to our global climate, there are a couple of other gases that also play a major part.
In fact, methane is actually up to 100 times more potent at trapping energy than carbon dioxide. And nitrous oxide is 310 times more potent.
Two of the main sources of methane emissions are cow manure and the eructations (belching and flatulence) from cows. And one of the primary sources of nitrous oxide emissions is the fertilizer that’s used to grow livestock feed.
What All This Means
Put it all together, and startling truths emerge.
In 2014, researchers at Oxford University surveyed the diets of over 55,000 people and analyzed their net impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
According to this study, published in the journal Climatic Change in 2014, the average meat-eater in the U.S. is responsible for almost twice as much global warming as the average vegetarian, and close to three times that of the average vegan.
Of course, you don’t have to go vegetarian, or vegan, to support a stable climate.
Whether or not you want to go veg, you can eat less meat and move away from industrialized animal agriculture — and make a very real impact. Every bite counts.
Water Is Life
Water covers 70% of our planet.
Despite the fact that we live on “the water planet,” the reality is that fresh water — the stuff we bathe in, drink, and irrigate our farms with — is remarkably scarce. It makes up only about 3% of the world’s total water supply.
And I’m not just concerned because my name is Ocean.
As human populations and our consumption of water have grown, more and more water has been pumped out of the ground at increasingly unsustainable rates. The world’s largest current underground water reserves in Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas are under stress.
According to a report from National Geographic, two billion people rely on groundwater that is considered finite and threatened.
Some of our water comes from rivers, streams, and lakes. But can you imagine what would happen to humanity if our wells run dry? Billions of people would die of thirst or starve.
Where is our groundwater going? Did you know that more than two-thirds of it is used to irrigate agriculture?
I live in California, a state of 40 million people. And California, like many parts of the world, faces a water shortfall. Up to 65% of the state’s water comes from groundwater, which, in most years, is not being replenished as quickly as it’s being consumed.
The water we pump out of the ground has been stored up over countless millennia. And in many places, we just don’t capture enough rain and snow to keep pace with the amount that we’re using.
In response to this growing crisis, many people in water-challenged regions are taking steps to conserve. We’re installing low-flow showerheads and taking shorter showers. And we’re replacing lawns with shrubs and rock gardens.
These steps help. But to truly solve the water puzzle, we have to look at where the most water is going. Agriculture is at the center of it all.
California’s livestock industry alone uses more water than all the homes and businesses in the state combined. And even with all that water, California still imports most of the meat consumed in the state.
And it’s not just California. National Geographic reports that in the United States, it takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce a single pound of grain-fed beef.
If you want to save water, reducing industrialized beef consumption could be the most powerful single step you can take.
The Ground Beneath Us
While many of us think of it as dead, the reality is that healthy soil is teeming with life.
An acre of healthy topsoil can contain 2,400 pounds of fungi, 1,500 pounds of bacteria, 900 pounds of earthworms, 890 pounds of arthropods and algae, and 133 pounds of protozoa.
It takes nature a thousand years to generate three centimeters of precious topsoil. But today, we’re losing our topsoil at an alarming rate.
The average rate of soil erosion on U.S. cropland is seven tons per acre per year.
According to Maria-Helena Semedo, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s deputy director general of natural resources, unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level that we had in 1960.
If current rates of degradation continue, all the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years.
Where Is All the Topsoil Going?
Most of it is being washed away with rains and irrigation, as unsustainable farming practices destabilize the soil and fail to replenish it with an adequate supply of new organic matter.
The sobering reality is that if we don’t change course, then climate change, aquifer depletion, and topsoil erosion will mean that the next generation may be on course to witness mass starvation in numbers utterly unprecedented in human history.
For an example of where none of us wants to be headed, take a look at the Sahara Desert, which covers large parts of Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Chad, Morocco, Eritrea, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, and Sudan.
Did you know that this was once a rich agricultural region? It grew abundant millet and other grains, and prehistoric cave drawings depict the region as rich in flora and fauna.
But not anymore. Today, this desert gets average rainfall of less than one inch per year, making it inhospitable to most forms of life.
And it’s huge. The Sahara Desert now covers more than 8% of Earth’s total land mass — an area larger than the continental United States. And it’s growing.
Unsustainable farming practices are combining with climate change to cause the mighty Sahara to expand steadily. In fact, it’s grown by more than 3.5 million square miles (an area nearly as large as the United States) in the last 60 years, and its rate of growth appears to be accelerating.
Why We Need to Change the Way We Grow Our Food
But the good news is, we can address these problems — starting with a change in how we grow our food.
Ronnie Cummins, international director of Regeneration International, tells us: “The solution to global warming and the climate crisis (as well as poverty and deteriorating public health) lies right under our feet, and at the end of our knives and forks.”
The key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only does no harm to the land but actually improves it.
It incorporates technologies that lead to healthy soil that becomes capable of producing high-quality, nutrient-dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading, land. Ultimately, regenerative agriculture leads to productive farms, drought-resistant crops, and healthy communities and economies.
Healthy soil can sequester carbon. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide, and when farming is well managed, this carbon can be taken out of the air and captured in the dirt.
How One Farm Changed the Way It Grows Food
Cam and Roxane McKellar run Inveraray Downs, a 1,250-hectare farm in New South Wales, Australia. They grow many crops, including wheat, sorghum, corn, sunflower, barley, chickpeas, mung beans, and soybeans.
In the year 2000, after decades of conventional cultivation, pesticides, and inorganic fertilizer, the quality and the productivity of the soil had been harmed. Pest infestations were on the rise. And the crops the McKellars were growing needed increasing amounts of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers just to keep yields steady.
At the same time, the costs of fertilizers, fuel, insecticides, and herbicides were becoming prohibitive.
Cam recalls, “We were going broke. Everyone but me was making money out of the farm!”
The McKellars investigated alternatives, and started to practice organic composting, crop rotation, high-intensity rotational grazing, and adding abundant recycled green manure. They slowly reduced their reliance on non-organic fertilizers, swapping them for options such as kelp, fish emulsions, and composts.
Over time, the McKellars restored the soil structure. Their soil now holds more water, making it less susceptible to drought and flood and requiring less irrigation.
Today, as a result of all these changes, Inveraray Downs’ production costs have decreased, crop yields and quality have improved, and the structure, fertility, and resilience of soils are all being restored. All of this is good for the consumer, good for the planet — and also good for profits.
Cam reflects, “Fundamentally we need to work with nature, not against her… I should have moved to a more natural system of farming a lot earlier in my life. It is not hard. Start small, experiment, then expand.”
Putting It Into Action
If we are to have a stable climate for future generations, as well as water and soil our grandchildren can use to grow food — and if we care about food sustainability — there are a few things that we know we must do.
We need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, to move as rapidly as possible toward renewable energy, to implement regenerative agricultural principles that sequester carbon, to eat mostly plants, and to remember that our actions always have an impact.
Every dollar you spend, and every bite you take, is a vote. And in the food revolution, every vote counts. You and I aren’t only drops in the bucket. We’re the tide of history, changing.
A better future isn’t only possible — it’s something you can help to create every single day.
Editor’s note: Adapted from chapter 28 of 31-Day Food Revolution: Heal Your Body, Feel Great, & Transform Your World. Get the whole book here.
Tell us in the comments below:
Does this make you feel more hopeful about the future of food and our world?
How do you eat for food sustainability and a healthier world?
What changes will you make to support a healthy future?
Featured Image: iStock.com/ThomasVogel