Many people are unaware of how the food they eat and their choices regarding food affect the environment. Everything, from the food people consume, the groceries they buy, and the restaurants they eat at places a massive strain on the environment that manifests in a multitude of detrimental consequences. This major ecological impact associated with accommodating for people’s food desires is attributable to the fact that producing any type of food requires some form of land, water, energy consumption, and specific procedures or practices to be used that harm the environment in most cases. All the environmental effects, however, are externalities, meaning they are consequences people do not compensate for, making it easy to be oblivious toward them. The huge demand for cheap food, lack of local buying, and extremely high meat consumption in the United States has led to catastrophic effects on the planet. People can make just a small adjustment toward a healthier lifestyle, like buying less junk food or shopping at local farmers’ markets, to help offset these effects and greatly benefit the environment.
Almost every single American is willing to buy junk food despite the health risks, but most do not realize how this actually creates a chain reaction ending with harm being inflicted on the environment. For the past thirty years, American agricultural policy has focused on producing large quantities of inexpensive calories because Americans strongly demand cheap food (Denton par. 2). The cheapest way to consume a high number of calories is by eating junk food, and the demand for junk food is incredibly high, primarily due to its convenience, affordability, and accessibility, which creates a huge incentive for companies to mass manufacture it (Lama par. 2-6). One of the cheapest sources of calories comes from corn, and corn is found in most junk foods in the form of a sweetener called high fructose corn syrup. In order to satisfy the demand for junk food, corn is consistently grown on farms across the country in order to make high fructose corn syrup. However, growing one crop consistently in what is known as a monoculture poses a huge threat to the environment. Monocultures deplete the soil and force farmers to use greater amounts of hazardous chemicals that disrupt ecosystems and put wildlife in danger (Denton par. 3). The two main types of chemicals used in agriculture are pesticides and fertilizers. Both these chemicals are terrible for the environment, yet their excessive use has allowed them to disrupt ecosystems and contaminate soil and bodies of water across the nation. In fact, it was revealed in a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the mid-90s that over 90 percent of water and fish samples collected from major river basins across the country contained one, or more often, several pesticides (Aktar, et al par. 20). One example of a consequence derived from the use of these chemicals is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where no fish or other animal can live due to the influx of chemicals from the Mississippi River, mainly fertilizers (Denton par. 4). Something so trivial like buying a candy bar can result in these horrific effects because hazardous agricultural methods are implemented to satisfy people’s desires.
If people were to reduce the amount of junk food they buy, less farming would be done to produce junk food, and harmful practices like the use of pesticides would not be used as commonly, thus protecting the environment. Occasionally switching that bag of chips for a bag of nuts is a small change that would go a long way. Furthermore, companies that produce junk foods tend to seek ways to maximize production and profit without much regard to their environmental impact. For example, McDonald’s insists on only using a type of potato susceptible to rotting and disease, so they utilize highly toxic pesticides to combat this issue at the expense of the surrounding air quality (Loki par. 2-3); decreasing the demand for products from companies that are not at all eco-friendly will give them less incentive to produce. Not to mention that buying less junk food would better the health of society. As stated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), leading a healthier lifestyle drastically reduces one’s risk for health complications and leads to increased overall happiness (par. 3). People could benefit their planet and themselves simultaneously, and there are few triumphs superior to that duo.
Another way people can better their health while helping the planet is through buying local produce. It is no secret that in today’s age, many countries participate in international trade, so much of the food we purchase and consume has to travel thousands of miles to reach us. Food is often brought to America by airfare, and planes heavily contribute to global warming through emitting enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. The Center for Biological Diversity observed that “the United States is [already] responsible for nearly half of worldwide CO2 emissions from aircraft,” so the reliance on food importing only worsens an already dire situation by increasing global warming (par. 2). As most already know, global warming is a worldwide crisis and is very complex. Some effects, as examined by NASA, include rising sea levels, increased occurrences of droughts and heatwaves, and the extinction of various species (par. 14-19).
An ordeal as massive as global warming itself can be fought with simply going to one’s local famer’s market to buy fruit and vegetables. This is because choosing to shop locally reduces one’s carbon footprint since no greenhouse gas-emitting transportation is needed. It also makes shipping and packaging facilities as well as refrigeration unnecessary, decreasing overall energy consumption while still getting food to people’s plates (Thompson par. 2). Aside from increasing climate change, shipping food makes it necessary for farmers and supermarkets to strategize ways they will preserve the food and maintain its nutritional value during the transit process. Farmers will often use pesticides to keep food in good shape and fertilizers to help compensate the natural loss of nutritional value in food. This runs the risk of chemical residue on food and, as previously mentioned, both these chemicals have horribly adverse repercussions on the environment. Fortunately, their effects can also be mitigated through buying local produce. “Many local producers pride themselves on keeping their product organic, hormone free and pesticide free. Not only is this beneficial to the consumer, it’s also beneficial to the environment” (Thompson par. 4). Local produce is an ideal option to live a healthier lifestyle while living on a healthier planet.
Opting toward healthier options such as fruit, vegetables, and nuts, and choosing to buy those foods from local markets would be a huge step toward sustainability. However, any diet-related progress for the Earth would be immensely difficult to reach without efforts to reduce an even more prevalent and severe aspect: meat consumption. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that the United States has the highest per capita meat consumption in the entire world, with citizens eating an average of around 97 kg of meat each year (Smith par. 3). Due to this demand, the bulk of agriculture is focused on raising a tremendous amount of livestock, and much of our natural resources are dedicated to producing meat, creating a plethora of environmental effects. Firstly, animals require space to live and graze, and they need to be fed. Consequently, eight times as much land is used to grow crops to feed livestock rather than people (Jagendorf par. 3). With so many animals needing food, the use pesticides and fertilizers is, again, implemented in order to produce sufficient amounts of food. Moreover, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service of the USDA, “nearly half of the lower 48 states is grazing land,” but when animals eat intensively in fields, or overgraze, this leads to a process known as desertification (par. 1). Ultimately, desertification leads to the deterioration of soil quality and decline in soil productivity until the land, no matter how fertile, can no longer support vegetation. As if this ridiculous amount of land did not place enough of a strain on the environment as it is, forests are constantly cleared to provide livestock with more range and pasture land to live and graze. In fact, 260 million acres that were once forests are now grazed by cattle in the US (Jagendorf par. 3); deforestation is one of the most frequent man-made afflictions to our planet with effects including increasing global warming, destroying habitats, and endangering species.
Aside from land use, meat production is destroying our planet in various other ways. Beginning with the water supply, meat production is a colossal burden on available water. Examples of the uses of water pertaining to livestock include feedlots, dairy operations, and cooling of facilities for the animals and products; estimates claim that 1,800 – 2,500 gallons of water go into producing each pound of beef (USGS par. 1; Jagendorf par. 4). With water being such a vital but limited resource, this fact is almost unfathomable, especially considering the number of people without access to sufficient water. Water used in meat production could be used to achieve so much more than a mere hamburger. To make matters even worse, not only is water being depleted, but animal waste frequently contaminates rivers, lakes, and groundwater via runoff. “According to the Government Accountability Office, an estimated 1.6 million tons of animal waste is created in the U.S. alone and this waste creates unsafe levels of antibiotics, phosphorus, nitrogen and other things in our soil and drinking water” (Jagendorf par. 5). Moving on to climate change, livestock is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, primarily methane and nitrous oxides. PETA has discovered that animal agriculture is attributable for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire world’s transportation systems combined (par. 2). This makes most climate change mitigation strategies seem futile considering that global efforts to combat global warming focus solely on carbon emissions. Agriculture’s “potential to contribute to limiting global warming to less than 2°C by the end of the century is substantial by reducing direct emissions in crop and livestock production” (Blandford and Hassapoyannes 1). Continuing the current trends in meat consumption will undeniably be one of the worst things we can do to the planet as private citizens.
If society as a whole were to reduce meat consumption, the vicious cycle that is used to produce meat will come to a grinding halt. Cutting down on a meat-heavy meal even once every two weeks is enough to make an impact, which goes to show the magnitude of this great calamity. Just like there is a myriad of harmful consequences from producing meat, there is an abundance of benefits that derive from cutting back on meat consumption. For starters, reducing meat consumption simultaneously frees up land used for grazing that can be utilized for eco-friendly projects like restoration and wildlife habitats (Wuerthner 8). Another huge advantage is the shift in agriculture away from crop production used to feed livestock. With a large amount of farming becoming unnecessary, not only is the use of hazardous chemicals decreased, but America can focus on feeding the nation and contribute to the fight against world hunger. Moreover, society could greatly help water conservation efforts and work towards preventing water contamination, which is good for the planet as well as humanity. Lastly, America’s carbon footprint can be strongly reduced if there were not as many animals to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. “If large numbers of people were to cut meat out of their diet one or a few days a week, the long-term impact could eventually lead to a cut in costs to combat climate change by nearly 50% over the next few decades” (Jagendorf par. 6). With so many benefits from a minimal change in one’s diet, people should not hesitate to help knowing how much of a difference they can make.
The ecological benefits of leading a healthier lifestyle sometimes seem too good to be true; many doubt that such a small change could really lead society toward sustainability. Some critics argue that these minimal changes require many people to participate in order to be effective, thus making them impractical. They wonder if enough people will be willing and able to make the shift in their lifestyle to actually benefit the environment. The question of willingness can easily be solved through awareness; if more people are educated about the adverse effects of their choices, more people would want to help. Therefore, it is crucial to advise people on the consequences of their diets and teach them ways to mitigate them.
Whether someone is able to help is a more challenging issue. It was estimated that one in nine Americans were food insecure in 2018, and this is mostly attributable to poverty (Hunger and Health par. 1). There are many people who do not have the financial stability necessary to make any alterations to the way they live, especially since healthier foods are commonly higher in price. Furthermore, the prevalence of food deserts in America, which are defined by the USDA as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods… due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers,” makes it extremely difficult for people to engage in activities like buying less junk food and purchasing from local producers (American Nutrition Association par. 1). Although a compelling argument, it only conveys how incredibly imperative it is that people who have the freedom and capability to make a change decide to help. Those who cannot afford to change their eating and shopping habits will not be penalized, but they also will not be used as an excuse; to compensate this demographic, it is crucial that societal efforts from the more privileged individuals are made.
The Earth and the plentiful species that inhabit it are under immense pressure, and humans are to blame for most of the harm done to our planet. Current agricultural practices devastate the environment, and their impact derives from the small, simple choices made by everyday citizens. Although issues like land use, climate change, and water contamination may seem out of one’s hands, the reality is quite the contrary. Just as the societal decisions regarding food have created this situation, it is societies’ new decisions that will work to solve it. Making healthier choices will be one of the biggest ways people can help their planet. Even buying one less soda per week or occasionally substituting a sausage breakfast for an oatmeal will alleviate ecological pressure. Some would say there is no reason for a person to refuse such a minor alteration. Any personal cost from an individual is insignificant when compared to the shared, invaluable benefit they will receive by improving the Earth’s state. While aiding the advancement of sustainability, people would also be greatly helping themselves. Eating healthier benefits the body, the mind, and the environment; it is a small price to pay for a priceless reward.