What is the Number One Lifestyle Change to Reduce Environmental Impact?

Most of us already do a lot to reduce our environmental impact. We pick up trash from the beaches, drink from reusable bottles, take short showers, refuse plastic bags and straws. Some of us have gone more extreme: Wearing recycled surf bikinis, buying only products that come in glass or metal, using bamboo handled toothbrushes and razors, taking public transportation or even buying a hybrid car. All of this is in an effort to reduce our environmental impact on an already exhausted planet.  

But what if there was one simple (yet challenging) thing you could do that would have a greater effect at reducing environmental impact than all of the above, combined? Would you do it?


The Environmental Impact of your Diet

Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined emissions from all transportation.


Here it is, plain and simple: according to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined emissions from all transportation. You can drive a hybrid or take public transportation (which is great) but it would not have as big of environmental impact as switching to a (more) plant-based diet.


factory farm
A cattle feedlot in Yuma, Arizona. Jeff Vanuga/USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service


Not convinced? Check out these stats:


-2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef. [1]

The average shower takes 17.2 gallons. Meaning if you reduce your shower time in half for a year you would have saved enough water to produce just one pound of beef.


-Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.[2]

Clearing land for grazing animals and raising feed crops, deforestation, and hunting of “predator” species, cause devastation for ecosystems. Add to this the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers for the production of feed crops, which often interferes with the reproductive systems of animals and poisons waterways, and we have an environmental disaster.


Clear cutting of forests to make room for feed crops is a major part of the problem. Photo: IUNC


-A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people. [3]


-Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction.[4]


-82% of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals, and the animals are eaten by western countries.[5]


-A person who follows a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th oil, 1/13th water, and 1/18th land compared to the average meat-eater. [6]


With 7.5 billion people on this earth, it is time we consider how much of it we are taking for ourselves. 


vegan vs meat eater



These are the facts, but what about protein?

I tried switching to a vegetarian diet several years ago. I lasted one month and almost starved to death. I am an athlete. I need protein. I felt weak and constantly hungry.


Venus Williams Vegan
Some of the world’s best athletes are vegan including Venus Williams.


I grew up on a farm where pigs and goats were raised for slaughter. I shot my first deer with a bow and arrow when I was 13. We never once ate a vegetarian meal in my family. All I had ever learned to cook was meat and potatoes.


About a year ago something switched in me. I was deer hunting on family land in Michigan. An adult female came and stood right in front of me for several minutes while her yearling hid in a thicket. Although it was open season and I knew the calf was weaned, something inside me didn’t want to pull the trigger. My family would use every ounce of the animal to feed my nieces and nephews. I knew my sister, with four hungry kids, had specifically asked for another deer to stock her freezer for the winter. I reminded myself the kill would be quick and humane. The animal had been raised “sustainably”. This food would be about as local as you can get. Far better for my nieces and nephews than eating factory-farmed beef.


Girls Hunting
My best friend and I wait for the right moment.


When I saw her drop to the earth my heart dropped with her. When I cut her open my own spirit bled. When I tore her still warm hide from her flesh I felt as if my own skin was being peeled back. This was not my first kill. But it would be my last. After that incident, I lost my taste for meat. If I’m not prepared to kill it, remove its innards, skin it and butcher it, what makes me feel entitled to eat it? 


Learning to Eat Again

The learning curve was steep but I was motivated by hunger. Meat simply didn’t sound good to me anymore so I had to figure it out. I love to cook but I had no idea how to cook without meat. I ate mostly rice and broccoli for a few months. 


vegan recipies
This vegan crunch wrap supreme is loaded with protein and flavor. Recipe and photo Pinch of Yum


I’m still not 100% plant-based. I stopped eating most dairy years ago because I’ve noticed it causes me inflammation and as an athlete, I don’t want that. I still eat high-quality eggs. Once in a while, I feel like I can’t get full, and that’s when a nice piece of fish saves the day. I’m currently pregnant and although it’s safe to have a vegan pregnancy there were a couple of weeks in my first trimester when my body craved chicken and so I listened up. 


So should you switch too?

This isn’t an evangelical post. I’m not urging anyone to become vegan or even vegetarian. I just want the facts to be known. The documentary “Cowspiracy” points out that the leading environmental organizations in the U.S. accept massive donations from the beef and dairy lobbies, meaning, they don’t want us to know this information. 

Facts are facts. What we eat has a massive environmental impact. If we are serious about helping our planet, we have to consume fewer animal products. 

Meatless Mondays are a great starting point. Do research on which plant-based foods have high protein content and try swapping them out. (Calorie for Calorie, broccoli has just about as much protein as beef!). Try some vegan recipes at a dinner party. Swap out a smoothie with vegan protein powder for your morning eggs.

I suggest avoiding meat replacements as they are often loaded with chemicals and GMO’s. Try recipes that use beans, non-GMO soy, nuts and nut butter, quinoa and heaps of veggies. You may have to eat a higher volume of food to get the same amount of calories. 



But is it enough?

These things may seem small but they actually might have more impact than picking up trash after your surf or bringing your own bags to the store. 

Yes, all of it is just a drop in the bucket, I know. But if we all add a couple of drops soon the bucket will overflow. Do what you can. Start where you are.

Cover Photo: The Economist 

I am a writer and wanna-be big wave surfer. Surfing is my muse. I write about it and how it’s teaching me to live better. I hold certification as a nutritionist, personal trainer, yoga instructor, and lifeguard instructor. My story “100 Days in Mexico” of how a solo road trip surfing my way through Mexico changed my life can be found here www.melanielainewilliams.com


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