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What To Eat (And Cut) For A Healthier Planet

It's lunchtime and hunger is calling. Your goal, of course, is to simply fill your grumbling tummy and get back to work within an hour and, if you’re like most people in a hurry, you’re not thinking about your lunch’s impact upon the Earth’s fragile ecosystem. It may be enough to make you lose your appetite, but the foods you usually gravitate towards may be adversely affecting the quality of land, air and water with each delicious bite you take. The next time you say, “Check, please,” consider the price of that all-American, juicy cheeseburger to the planet, as well as to your wallet. Just what is the environmental cost of our favorite foods?

Weighty Concerns

Not only is rising obesity rampant from coast to coast, America’s expanding waistline may also be correlated by the number of agricultural pounds we produce annually. Research indicates that it takes 3,265 pounds annually of agricultural product to feed each individual in the U.S., as opposed to 1,029 agricultural product pounds per person, currently produced in China, where largely vegetarian diets are the norm.

One of the main culprits to this glut and its detrimental impact to the environment are greenhouse gas-producing meat products of all kinds, and in particular lamb and beef, which require massive acreage of pastureland as well as huge quantities of agriculturally produced grain products, utilized as feed. Dairy food fares better but not by much. Cheese’s carbon footprint, when measured in greenhouse gas emissions, is actually greater than that of pork or chicken.

Fish can be a great alternative to both fatty, caloric consumption and overall environmental impact, but not all fish is created equal, with farmed salmon standing out as a significantly less-than-virtuous choice. In addition to its inhumane aspects, salmon farming is highly dependent upon antibiotics, pesticides and vaccines, which can adversely affect the ocean bottom, particularly in shallow areas, as well as the naturally occurring wild fish populations and surrounding ecosystems nearby.

Which Came First?

You may have wearily made your way through "365 Ways to Cook Chicken" to date, but free-range fowl still remains a friendlier environmental choice than either farmed fish or commercially grown beef or lamb. Whether you prefer white or brown, eggs, particularly those from cage-free chickens, also have a lower environmental impact than other American go-to food choices, such as tuna fish or turkey burgers. If your chirp of choice, however, is farmed commercially, the environmental impact it creates will be increased significantly, as will that of the eggs it lays.

Chickens raised via traditional methods not only spend their entire lives inhumanely cramped in tiny, overcrowded spaces, they are also forced to subsist on feed laced with trace amounts of arsenic, anti-microbial medication and artificial growth enhancer. These artificially produced substances, cited as being carcinogens, often find their way not only into our food but also into ground water, subsequently polluting the surrounding environment and impacting upon our climate as well as our health.


Not surprisingly, an organic, vegetarian diet appears to be the most planet-friendly option we currently have. If you simply can’t bear the thought of never eating another porter house steak, however, consider avoiding genetically modified food whenever possible and opting for free-range fowl, wild fish and grass-fed beef on a regular basis. Substituting one meat meal with more environmentally friendly grain choices, or vegetarian protein sources such as lentils, can significantly reduce your carbon footprint over time, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants which impact upon ground and water supplies.

You may know the old saying, “One mother can take care of ten children, but ten children can’t take care of one mother.” This may be even truer of Mother Earth and our natural resources, yet our responsibility to the well being of our planet is clear. While progress may be difficult to achieve, it can, in fact, be painstakingly achieved and measured, albeit one burger at a time. 

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at

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