Can Your Diet Save The Planet?

A new study suggests the production of meat is killing the Earth.
The goal of the New Green Revolution: to obtain through modern technology higher yields from land that has already been farmed. Photo by Andreas Gucklhorn

By Julia Szabo

Devouring that quarter-pounder doesn’t just compromise one’s health—it supports an industry that clogs the arteries of the planet. Producing one pound of beef requires an astounding 1,799 gallons of water. Meat farming’s other ravaging effects on the environment—including gaseous emissions from livestock waste, a major contributor to global warming—have the Earth headed for a fatal heart attack by mid-century. The pressure on the environment is not letting up, it’s intensifying; and by 2050 parts of the Earth will be uninhabitable if direct action isn’t taken today.

Reducing consumption of fossil fuel isn’t the only strategy to lower the world’s carbon footprint: Food is fuel for every human being on the planet, and the way it’s produced needs to change, in order for the environment to survive. That’s the message of a new study, “Options for Keeping the Food System Within Environmental Limits,” published in the journal Nature. Conducted by researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the study breaks new ground as the first to analyze the environmental impacts of global food production.

“The food system is a major driver of climate change, changes in land use, depletion of freshwater resources, and pollution of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems through excessive nitrogen and phosphorus inputs,” asserts the study, adding that—without a comprehensive plan of intervention—Earth could become inhospitable to human life by 2050, when the population is expected to hit 9 or 10 billion. “The environmental effects of the food system could increase by 50 to 90 percent,” the study states, “in the absence of technological changes and dedicated mitigation measures, reaching levels that are beyond the planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity.”

This is arguably the most depressing wake-up call ever sounded. If Earth becomes hostile to human life, where will we go? Yet there is hope: The study concludes that a global shift to a climate-friendly diet would sustainably feed the anticipated 10 billion residents of planet Earth. This flexitarian diet consists primarily of vegetables and fruits—the yield of what’s being called the New Green Revolution. The first Green Revolution made history more than half a century ago, when visionary scientists invented new technologies to increase agricultural production worldwide (most notably in developing countries), including high-yielding varieties of cereals. For saving millions from starvation with high-tech farming, agronomist Norman Borlaug, “the Father of the Green Revolution,” received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Now, the New Green Revolution has scientists racing to make rapid gains in food production, to feed the planet’s exploding future population. The goal: obtain higher yields from land that is already being farmed. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, this will require a blend of old and new methods: “As food production must increase more than 75 percent over the next 30 years, most of the gains will have to be achieved by obtaining higher yields from land that is already being farmed. Achieving gains of that magnitude will require widespread adoption of the technologies that today allow research stations to reap twice as much as farmers average. A new green revolution will need to combine modern technology, traditional knowledge and an emphasis on farming, social and agro-ecological systems as well as yields.”

Global climate change isn’t just a challenge to farmers; it’s “one of the biggest crises facing humankind,” says Linda P. Fried, Dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. But all is not lost—yet. “Climate change,” Fried concludes, “is both an unprecedented challenge and a unique opportunity to chart a collective course for a healthy and equitable world.”