Faith and your dinner plate

Food choices help mitigate climate change

Originally published in the Presbyterians Today March/April 2019 edition

Choosing a protein for a meal is no easy task.

  • Can you afford it?
  • Is it good for you?
  • If you have kids, will they eat it?

Then there are the less common and more challenging questions:

  • Was the earth harmed?
  • Were the workers treated well?
  • Did the animal suffer?
  • And how is our protein consumption contributing to carbon emissions and the climate crisis?

Drawings by children in Nepal calling on leaders at the UN Climate Talks and all of us to address the climate crisis

Scientists say that global carbon emissions must fall to avoid severe global warming. Ways to reduce carbon emissions range from having fewer children to cutting back on car usage and airplane trips. But perhaps a good first step is moving toward a more plant-based diet as a way to reduce our ecological footprint.

The Bible offers precise, not always savory or practical, guidelines in Leviticus 11. Yet, in the face of climate chaos and widespread ecosystem destruction, Leviticus may have been prescient in endorsing the eating of locusts, crickets and grasshoppers. Certain cultures have been eating them for centuries, and insects are now growing in culinary popularity not only for their taste, but also for their tiny ecological footprint.

Beyond Leviticus, the Bible’s advice around the question of earth stewardship is less precise, and we must factor in our current situation. The world has about 7.5 billion people, soon to be 9 or 10 billion, who — apart from vegans and vegetarians — enjoy eating meat, increasingly so as incomes permit.

But the planet can no longer tolerate our Western lifestyle, which includes widespread meat production and meat eating.

bowl of quinoa and vegetables

There are many sources of protein with less impact on the environment and climate. See these helpful charts to better understand the impact of eating different foods.

Earth Overshoot Day

Each year, scientists calculate Earth Overshoot Day, which is the day of the year that humanity’s resource consumption exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year. Earth Overshoot Day in 2018 was Aug. 1, the earliest ever.

Already, the consequences of our ecological overshoot are being felt by hundreds of millions of people who suffer from poisoned air and water, hunger and impoverishment and who need extra time and labor to access basic resources. On top of this, despoiled ecosystems and species extinction have caused massive losses of fauna and flora.

While we are not — yet — obliged to acquire a taste for grasshoppers or to swear off all meat, there is a simple way to move forward. Eat less meat, especially beef, pork and lamb.

Consider that producing 1 pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water, according to National Geographic. And to further reduce your carbon footprint, eat less dairy.

As Presbyterians, we have always stood behind family farmers, so we make this recommendation with reluctance.

The impact, though, of eating less meat and dairy is great, because currently the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined.

Growing crops, especially when using synthetic fertilizers, produces large amounts of CO2 emissions. On top of this, feed eaten by animals does not translate directly into food calories.

Therefore, while 80 percent of all farmland is used for livestock, this produces only 18 percent of the food calories we eventually eat. Translating that into lunch, a third-pound burger on average produces nearly 9 pounds of greenhouse gases.

diner worker

When you do eat meat and dairy, opt for meat and dairy from animals that have been raised on what ruminants were born to feed on — grass. By eating more plant-based proteins, such as rice, beans and legumes, nuts, seeds, millet, corn and quinoa, which are generally less expensive than meat, you can better afford sustainably raised meat and dairy as well.

As a connectional church, we can inspire one another to choose behaviors that jive with our beliefs in the sacredness of life and God’s creation.

As Psalm 24:1 proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.” We are called to be stewards of the earth, and this caring is reflected on our dinner plates.

Learn more

Consider trying out the Just Eating: Practicing Our Faith at the Table curriculum in your church.

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6 Responses to “Faith and your dinner plate”

  1. Steve Alexander

    There is so much wrong with your article it’s hard to know where to start. If you are anti animal agriculture because you object to eating something with a face, fine. But to repeat lies about the impact on the earth is wrong on a variety of levels. Check the science. There’s a lot to choose from. Start here:
    There is much, much more scientific proof that animal agriculture benefits, not harms the earth.
    If you are going to continue this agenda, will you be removing farm animals from your Giving Catalogue?
    And one more thing. You misused the word “jibe.”
    Jibe | Definition of Jibe by Merriam-Webster
    In particular, jive is often used as a variant for the sense of jibe meaning “agree,” as in “that doesn’t jive with my memory of what happened.”. … Jibe, however, is accepted as a variant spelling of an entirely different word, which is gibe (“to utter taunting words”).

  2. Ruth Ann Hoover

    I have always been a supporter of the Presbyterian church but that stops after reading this article. You obviously have never been around rural America where cattle are raised. Your information is grossly inaccurate. I could quote you accurate amounts but you have obviously chosen to gather data from unreliable sources. Very disappointed in this stand!

  3. Andrew Kang Bartlett

    The statistics on the average number of gallons of water that go into producing a pound of beef and the carbon dioxide emissions are highly debated numbers. While there are some studies that show even higher amounts, the one I chose to cite was the following: producing a pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water. This comes from the National Geographic and is based on the 2010 study by Mekonnen and Hoekstra entitled, “The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products.” It is from the Water Footprint Network and is available here:

    Another fact was about the amount of agricultural land used in the U.S. to raise animals for food and grow grain to feed them, which is 80% (or almost half the total land mass of the lower 48 states). This comes from “Major Uses of Land in the United States” by Marlow Vesterby and Kenneth S. Krupa.

    The Presbyterian Church has not taken a stand specifically about eating less meat. That said, the denomination is very concerned about the climate crisis and is attempting to respond to this existential threat in various ways. One, obviously, is to address things we do in our lives that impact ecosystems and the atmosphere. This recommendation is based on the best independent research we have been able to find.

  4. Andrew Kang Bartlett

    Calling facts you don’t agree with lies is common for these times, but it’s not a productive way to discuss important issues. Nevertheless, I do want to address the point you raise about the complexity of determining effects of livestock production on the planet’s atmosphere. The article you recommended makes an important point about methane producing less warming effect over the long term because it breaks down more quickly in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, this is a moot point unless methane emissions go down. (see NOAA chart here: Therefore, eating less meat would help move us in that direction.

    From the article – “Another third of anthropogenic methane emissions are derived from livestock. But we can reasonably expect these to decline as well, as a result of reduced fossil fuel availability. Artificial fertilisers will become more expensive, leading to reduced animal feed production; and livestock will be competing for grazing and forage land with the demand for biomass energy.”

    While my article didn’t go into the difference between high-input, industrial livestock production versus raising livestock as part of a diversified farming system, the differences are dramatic. The former typically uses much more fossil fuel at various stages of feed and animal production, produces less healthy meat, and loses out on the potential nutrient benefits to a farming system. In a diversified farming system, animals are highly-beneficial in so many ways and in particular in providing on-site fertilizer. This is the kind of animal agriculture we support through our partners organizations in the U.S. and overseas.

    Thanks for the correction on jibe!

  5. Erin Bradt

    Unfortunately, the pollution produced in mono-crops of grains and produce, chemical fertilizer use, herbicides, pesticides and severe erosion caused, carbon released in tilling and fuel consumption during each step of the process is not being considered in articles such as this. Neither is that of processing supplements necessary to attempt to balance nutrition requirements, supplements and processed “plant-based foods”. Nor the methane/carbon production from the 40% wasted produce that ends up annually in landfills. Stick with the pros NASA shows where the pollution is coming from. Industrial farms of any kind are not good for the environment, but lumping everything into “farm” and targeting “livestock” will is detrimental.

  6. Andrew Kang Bartlett

    Erin, you make an excellent point! Indeed, all farming and livestock production should not be lumped together. I had a limited word limit for this column and I didn’t draw out the distinctions. As you say, industrial agriculture is more damaging to natural systems (including the people that are part of nature), compared with regenerative or agroeecological farming. Of course, we must first give credit to Dr. George Washington Carver who researched and codified many aspects of regenerative agriculture for us here in the United States. For those less familiar, here is a description of agroecology and its benefits that I compiled a few years back:

    Agroecology is an innovative approach centered on the interactions among farmers and their natural environments within their food and agricultural system. It combines the sciences of ecology and agronomy with the political economy of food production and consumption. This approach goes beyond improving the availability of food to also ensure the achievement of the right to food at the household level.

    The following ecological principles have been identified as central to agroecology:
    1) Recycling of plants and animal wastes within the farm ecosystems.
    2) Securing favorable soil conditions for plant growth through the management of organic matter.
    3) Minimizing soil, nutrient and water losses due to wind erosion, drought and flooding through microclimate management, water harvesting and soil management through increased soil cover.
    4) Enhancing the genetic, species and habitat biodiversity of the agro-ecosystem.
    5) Optimizing biological interactions to promote key ecological processes and functions.

    These principles presume a set of social practices grounded in local knowledge generation and empowerment. Agroecology is highly knowledge intensive and is based on techniques that are not delivered top-down but developed on the basis of farmers’ shared knowledge and experimentation. It requires a commitment to the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture systems, and it places those who produce, distribute and consume food at the center of decisions on food systems and policies.

    Agroecology, Hunger & Nutrition: In many countries around the less industrialized world, agriculture is a key sector providing employment and food security. Research shows that while a balanced whole foods based diet is the best way to meet nutritional needs, specific vitamin and mineral deficiencies arise when soil contains less than sufficient vitamins and minerals to meet dietary needs, and when particular elements of the diet are not available. Fortified foods can in the short run help address these issues, but long-term solutions mean supporting initiatives ensuring that local farmers can produce culturally appropriate, dietary diverse foods to meet their families and communities nutritional needs.

    Given the depleted natural resource base upon which agricultural productivity depends, in the long term it is critically important to protect this base, including seed varieties and indigenous and traditional farming techniques. In the face of diminishing fossil fuel resources, developing agricultural systems that do not rely on constant chemical and fossil-fuel-based inputs may become essential. As an approach to achieving global food security with minimal use of external inputs, agroecology likely would better respect the earth’s carrying capacity.

    While it is often said that “no single technology is a silver bullet,” as a science based approach to growing food, feed and fuel that is rooted in farmers experiences, agroecology is closest thing we have when it comes to ensuring that the soil is in the best condition to respond to nutritional needs. Moreover, agroecology enables us to be climate resilient, reduce our fossil fuel dependency, and reduce the environmental—carbon, water and biodiversity—footprints of agriculture.