What We Eat Matters
Producing food for human consumption has myriad impacts on the environment. Food production uses multiple inputs such as land, water, energy, and fertilizers, and also has numerous outputs including greenhouse gas emissions, water and air pollution, fertilizer runoff, and more.
Although some methods of production are more harmful to the Earth than are others, what we eat makes more of a difference than how or where it is produced. Generally speaking, animal products contribute more to environmental destruction than do plant foods.
Dietary Shift is Necessary to Sustain Life on Earth
Crucially, research has demonstrated that human diets must shift towards more plants and less animal products in order to feed a growing world population without exceeding planetary boundaries.
On this page, you can find many specific facts about the environmental impact of your food choices, as well as lots of great resources if you want to learn more! Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page for links to resources.
Where do You Get Your Protein?
According to Oxford researchers Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek, in their journal article “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers,” “The impacts of the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins across greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, acidification (excluding nuts), and frequently land use….” This chart comparing environmental impacts of 100 grams of protein from various foods demonstrates some of their findings.
Eating More Plants Reduces Your Contribution to the Climate Crisis
The EAT-Lancet Commission is an international, interdisciplinary body that was formed to find an answer to the question, “Can we feed a future population of 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries?” The Commission determined that it is possible to do so, but diets must shift to plant-based and plant-centric diets with moderate amounts of meat and other animal products. This chart shows the greenhouse gas emissions of different types of diets. Importantly, although vegan diets are lowest in greenhouse gas emissions, maintaining the habitability of our Earth does not require everyone to adopt a fully plant-based diet. It does require substantial reductions in consumption of animal foods, however, especially in countries such as the U.S. in which we currently eat more than can be supported within planetary boundaries.
The Water Footprint of Foods
People who want to be conscientious about their use of water often engage in actions such as taking shorter showers, turning off the water while brushing teeth, and flushing less often. While these are helpful choices, in actual fact, household water usage is a small fraction of any individual’s water footprint. Water used to produce consumer goods is considerably larger than that used in the home and garden. The largest portion of one’s water footprint, by far, is the water used to produce the foods we eat. And all foods are not created equal. Animal-based foods are water guzzlers, compared to plant-based foods. Even the oft-touted thirsty almond is a better choice than many animal products. Although among plant-based foods, almonds use a lot of water, we also don’t consume them in the same quantities as we do many other foods. The amount of water it takes to produce a quarter pound hamburger, for example, is the same amount it would take to produce about four and a half cups of almonds! Nobody sits down and eats that many almonds, but people often eat one or more hamburgers.
The following chart shows the water footprints of many common foods. How thirsty is your diet?
What We Eat Impacts Land Availability
Different foods take different amounts of land to grow. In parallel with other environmental topics, foods of animal origin use more land than do plant foods. One of the contributing factors is the poor feed-to-food conversion ratios. For example, it takes 3.3 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of chicken meat, 6.4 pounds of feed for 1 pound of pig meat, and 25 pounds of feed for 1 pound of beef! So the land required to raise the feed for the animals, plus the animals themselves, is considerable. If the everyone ate the way we eat in the United States, it would take the entire land surface of 1.37 Earth’s to feed the current world population!
Want to Learn More?
Following are a number of resources to increase your understanding and knowledge of the environmental impacts of our dietary choices. Also included is a list of resources to support you in learning how to eat a sustainable, healthy diet. There are many ways to learn, for example through watching documentaries or YouTube videos, browsing websites, or reading books. We even reference educational games you can play. And for those wanting to go deeper, we have included a number of studies and reports published in peer-reviewed journals. By learning about this crucial topic, and sharing what we learn with others, we can support the dietary shift that will allow for continued habitation of our beloved Earth. Please check back, as we are continuously adding resources to this page. Thank you for your willingness to partner with Eat for the Earth in this endeavor!
Movies and Videos
Cowspiracy: This is the most comprehensive documentary about the environmental impact of food.
Numerous documentaries include the environmental impact of animal agriculture in more comprehensive treatments of the impact of diets high in animal products. Here are a few to watch:
- H.O.P.E.: What you Eat Matters
- Eating Animals
- Vegucated: Official Site, YouTube Video
- The Game Changers
- What the Health
Educational Video Presentations
- We Know What is Happening: This is a presentation by Eat for the Earth’s founder Rev. Beth Love that was part of a Climate Change Mastermind put on by Dr. John McDougall. In the presentation, Rev. Beth uses graphics, rhetoric, accessible science, and emotion to educate about the threats to life on Earth posed by animal agriculture. The presentation is twenty minutes long, and the video also includes Dr. McDougall’s introduction and a short conversation between the two of them afterwards.
- Two more excellent educational presentations of similar length from Dr. McDougall’s Climate Masterminds were offered by two of Eat for the Earth’s partners, Dr. Sailesh Rao of Climate Healers, and Gerrard Wedderburn-Bisshop of the World Preservation Foundation:
- COVID-19: Birthing the Chrysallis Phase for Humanity: In this presentation, Dr. Rao uses story, science, spirituality, love, and an engineer’s perspective to demonstrate the opportunity for transformation presented by the current pandemic. In the process, he illuminates the connections between diet, environment, the pandemic, economics, food justice, and so much more.
- Appetite for Destruction: The focus of this presentation is the way that animal agriculture is pushing us out of the safe zone on many of the nine planetary boundaries. Crossing these boundaries can result in massive environmental change and potentially render the planet unfit for habitation. Dr. Bisshop makes the science extremely accessible to the lay person, with clear explanations and easy to understand charts and other graphics.
- The entire Climate Change Mastermind series currently contains 19 videos, and more events are planned.
- Here are a few really short educational videos:
- The Farmed Animal Controversy: This is a series of concise videos by Gerrard Wedderburn-Bisshop. Each video in the playlist demystifies the science about one piece of the question about the contribution of animal agriculture to the climate crisis and other environmental challenges.
- Why Beef is the Worst Food for the Environment: This short piece from Vox brilliantly demonstrates the factors that go into making beef the worst choice when it comes to the climate crisis.
- What is the Environmental Impact of Feeding the World?: This video of less than 5 minutes from the California Academy of Sciences features teens and targets teen viewers. It’s an upbeat yet reality-based exposé of the facts.
- The Environmental Damage Caused by Animal Agriculture: Teen activist Genesis Butler interviews Guardian reporter Damian Carrington about what he has learned about the topic through his reporting on emerging environmental science. This is a wake up call.
- Is Grazing Animals Good for the Environment: A 7-minute video by the influential truth-teller Earthling Ed. This short educational video cuts through the confusion about the impact of animal grazing on the Earth. Can certain types of grazing sequester carbon? And if so, what is the net benefit?
Games, Calculators, and Interactive Tools
- The Water in Your Sandwich: This game was developed by Eat for the Earth to teach about the water footprint of our food choices. Choose the ingredients you would like to have on your sandwich from the game board. Calculate the total gallons of water required to produce your sandwich with the companion Water in Your Sandwich Calculator. Note: Clicking on any food item on the gameboard will open up more information including the serving size, gallons of water per serving, and source of the data.
- Climate Food Challenge: Fun, simple, and slightly addictive online game in which you race against a clock to guess which food has the least greenhouse gas emissions, and learn the facts through play. From Greenhouse Gas and Dietary choices Open souce Toolkit (GGDOT).
- Climate Footprint Flashcards: Another game from Greenhouse Gas and Dietary choices Open source Toolkit; this is a set of flashcards you can download, print, and cut for lots of great educational play.
- Food Carbon Quiz: Use what you learned from GGDOT’s flashcards and online game to test your learning.
- Food Choices for a Healthy Planet: Downloadable interactive game for web or mobile device in which you choose a region (out of four choices) and a character, and make food choices for that character. The game teaches about both nutritional and environmental impacts of your choices.
- Food Carbon Emissions Calculator: This calculator allows you to select a food category, food item, transport miles, quantity purchased and percentage wasted, then gives you the emissions amount broken down by production, transport, and waste.
- Foodprint Calculator: This calculator from Harvard lets you enter the number of servings of different types of food in your weekly and/or daily diet, then gives you the amount of carbon, nitrogen, and water it takes to feed you for a year.
- Measuring the Water Footprint of 16 Common Foodstuffs: Really amazing interactive tool in which you can select among a variety of metrics (e.g. liters of water per ton of food or grams of protein), food types, and food items. The graphic provides the water footprint as a total, as well as broken down into blue, green, and grey water footprints. The designer is Vasu Bajaj, a “data enthusiast” who makes lots of facts accessible.
- Meat Lifecycle: From Cradle to Grave: This interactive from the Environmental Working Group examines environmental impacts of beef all the way from pre-production through consumption and waste.
- Water Footprints of Various Plates of Food: This tool is from the Los Angeles Times.
- Fight Climate Change with Diet Change: Informational pamphlet from Vegan Outreach, available for download or hard copies priced at $.07/each.
- Save Our Water: Informational pamphlet from Vegetarian Resource Group, available for download or hard copies on a donation basis.
- Is Animal Farming Wrecking the Planet?: Informational pamphlet from the Animal Aid, available for download or up to 20 free hard copies.
- Vegan for the Environment: Informational pamphlet from the Vegan Society, available for download or hard copies on a donation basis.
- Why You Should Go Animal-Free: 18 Arguments for Eating Meat Debunked: This Guardian article states that “scientific evidence is piling up that meat-free diets are best,” and provides data from researchers to disprove many of the most popular ideas about why people should eat meat and/or why plant-based diets are also environmentally dubious.
- Appetite for Change: A Policy Guide to Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions of U.S. Diets by 2030: This report from the Center for Biological Diversity gives policy recommendations based on a new study, Implications for Future U.S. Diet Scenarios on Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
Scholarly Articles, Scientific Reports, and Similar Documents
- Implications of Future US Diet Scenarios on Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Report from Center for Sustainable Food Systems and University of Michigan that found significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions realized via replacement of animal-based foods in the US diet with plant-based foods.
- Options for Keeping the Food System within Environmental Limits: This journal article in Nature found that the current food system is environmentally unsustainable. The authors concluded that “dietary changes towards healthier, more plant-based diets, improvements in technologies and management, and reductions in food loss and waste” were all necessary to “sufficiently mitigate the projected increase in environmental pressures.”
- Scientists Call for Renewed Paris Pledges to Transform Agriculture: Scientists’ letter in The Lancet calling for the reduction of animal agriculture for climate mitigation. It has over 50 signatories that are listed on a supplementary document.
Support for Your Healthy, Sustainable Diet
Plant-Based Nutrition Science:
- NutritionFacts.org: This nonprofit organization makes information from nutrition journals accessible and even fun with hundreds of short videos and blog posts on various nutrition topics.
- NutritionStudies.org: This is the website of the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. It includes many great resources for learning about whole food plant-based nutrition.
- VeganHealth.org: This site created by registered dietitians includes a treasure trove of information and tips to support healthy plant-based eating.