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Chew On This For Earth Day: How Our Diets Impact The Planet

World on a fork
MHJ/Getty Images

The foods we choose to put on our plates — or toss away – could have more of an ecological impact than many of us realize.

On Earth Day, here are some ways to consider how our diet impacts the planet.

Waste not, want not

You've heard the numbers on food waste. More than 30 percent of available food is tossed each year in America. It's enough to fill Chicago's 1,450-foot-tall Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) 44 times over.

The U.S. has set an official goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030. Universities have begun to chip away at the food waste issue by promoting ugly fruit and vegetables and shifting away from pre-cooked, buffet style food, instead serving more cook-to-order options that can cut down on waste. Food service companies are working with farmers and chefs to get more blemished but edible produce into cafeterias across the country. Even religious groups are getting into the act, raising attention to the problem of food waste among the faithful and connecting with restaurants, retailers and food banks to help redirect food to hungry mouths that might otherwise end up in landfills.

And there are a host of proposed solutions. Check out this report that highlights which solutions are likely to provide most bang for the buck. Among the most cost-effective strategies: educating consumers on food waste – including changes you can make in your own kitchen. (Here are some tips to get you started – like how to tell if eggs are still good past their expiration date.)

Rethink your beef and lamb habit

Everything we eat has an environmental footprint – it takes land, water and energy to grow crops and raise livestock. The folks at the World Resources Institute have calculated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing a gram of edible protein of various foods.

Not surprisingly, they found that foods such as beans, fish, nuts and egg have the lowest impact. Poultry, pork, milk and cheese have medium-sized impacts. By far, the biggest impacts, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, were linked to beef, lamb and goat. (As we've reported, that's partly because the need for pastureland drives deforestation in places like the Brazilian Amazon.)

Why? According to WRI, beef uses 28 times more land per calorie consumed — and two to four times more freshwater — than the average of other livestock categories. What's more, cows are less efficient than other animals, like pigs and poultry, at converting feed into food.

Still, telling people to go cold turkey with their red meat isn't likely to inspire real change. But this message might resonate: Even if you don't give up on red meat consumption entirely, just cutting back can significantly impact your diet's carbon footprint.

And these days, there are lots of vegan substitutes – like plant burgers that sizzle, smell and even bleed like the real thing — that can deliver the meaty taste you crave as you try to scale back.

Keep an eye out for more 'plant-based' dishes on restaurant menus

As interest in plant-centric diets booms, new food businesses have taken root – from the veggie-centric fast-casual chains Beefsteak (from celebrity chef Jose Andres) and Chloe (an all-vegan restaurant) to the vegan meal-kit company Purple Carrot.

Now, a new initiative from the World Resources Institute called the Better Buying Lab is bringing together big companies (including Panera Bread, Sodexo, Google, Unilever and Hilton) to develop and test strategies to nudge consumers towards choosing more sustainable foods. One initiative is to get more plant-based dishes onto menus.

"If you look at menus across the U.S., there tends to be [the same] 25 dishes that are on the majority of menus," says Daniel Vennard, director of the Better Buying Lab at WRI. Think burgers, chicken dishes, etc. "Not many [plant-based] dishes have scaled to become national favorites," Vennard says.

His group is working to change that. It's teaming up with chefs from its member companies to create new recipes likely to have broad appeal. Promising ideas include the concept of "superfood salads" — containing combinations of nuts, seeds, greens, veggies and avocado.

He points to ideas already out there as well, such as burgers that blend meat and mushrooms. As we reported several years ago, some taste-testing has found that diners warmed up to the idea of blended burgers, and in fact many tasters preferred them to all-beef patties. And an ongoing competition from the James Beard Foundation has encouraged chefs around the country to give blended burgers a try on their menus. (Not everyone is a fan, though.)

"What we're trying to do is shift consumers towards eating more sustainable food, but we're not advocating for a no-meat diet," explains Vennard. "We're saying, 'Let's moderate.' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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