The American Diet Is Eating the Planet

There’s not enough land for the U.S. Dietary Guidelines

We’re known for “amber waves of grain,” but much goes to feed cattle (Photo credit: TumblingRun/flickr).

The standard American diet isn’t sustainable. It’s no secret that we eat too much and we waste too much. It’s bad for our health, and it’s bad for the environment.

Globally, food production is the biggest user of fresh water. It’s responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And it takes up nearly 40 percent of the planet’s land. Much of that super-sized footprint is from hooves — when it comes to the environmental demands of food production, meat and dairy eat up the biggest piece of the pie.

And meat and dairy make up a much larger part of the American diet than in other countries. With our influence on the global market, that’s a big problem.

A new study, released earlier this month, found that there isn’t enough land to produce the food necessary for the world’s population if everyone followed the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

Most Americans don’t follow the guidelines. Our eating habits are worse than the recommendations, too low in fruits and vegetables and too high meat. In other words, most Americans eat a diet that is more land-intensive than the recommendation.

Meanwhile, many people across the world don’t get enough food. But adopting the recommended American diet isn’t the solution.

To produce the food needed for everyone to have a Western diet with current production methods, the world would need another Canada, or one giga-hectare of additional land.

(Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr).

Part of the issue is the way that we produce our food. Most meat produced in the United States comes from factory farms, where animals are fed vast amounts of grain that requires more than 127 million acres of land to grow. But if we switched to grass-fed beef, would that solve the problem?

Trading one kind of beef for another won’t work. Despite some claims that grass-fed beef is more sustainable, it can’t support our current appetite for meat.

Another recently released study found that a switch to entirely grass-fed beef in America would require 30 percent more cattle to meet current demand. And, because pasture-raised cattle require more space to forage, the switch would devour even more land. Existing pastureland could only support 27 percent of the current beef supply in a grass-fed system.

Although there are some advantages to grass-fed beef over factory farms, it isn’t the answer to our sustainable diet problems — especially when we’re talking about the land needed to produce our food.

The only way to have a truly sustainable diet is to eat more plant-based foods and less meat and dairy. All this new research shows that we don’t have a choice — there simply isn’t the land to feed the U.S. or the world any other way.

Research has shown that diets rich in fruits and vegetables as well as plant-based proteins require less land. They also create fewer greenhouse gas emissions and demand less energy. But America doesn’t even grow enough vegetables for us to meet the existing dietary guidelines.

It’s time for our plates, our dietary guidelines and our food policies to support diets that are healthier for us, less harmful to environment and grounded in the reality of how much land is on the planet.

Stephanie Feldstein is the population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity.