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It is time to rethink plants. The word “plants” triggers childhood memories of broccoli left on the plate with the threat of no dessert. “Peas” makes people wrinkle their nose. And carrots taste like “dirt.” Beyond the traditional table-fare of our youth is a rainbow of possibility. The plant category encompasses more, including grains, nuts, beans and legumes, fruits, and a rainbow of vegetables. Each of these plays a role in fortifying our mind and body health, nurturing us from the inside-out. And it doesn’t end there. Choosing a plant-based diet has the ability to ecologically heal the Earth too, in addition to stabilizing communities and populations around the world.

Early last year The Lancet published a significant report about plant-based food systems as the best dietary choice for human health and longevity. Rather than beginning with greenhouse gases and global conservation, the report’s authors repositioned the conversation to start with each person and the role they play in nurturing themselves and how their choices can have planet-wide effects. The result of people around the world choosing plant-based diets was projected to save an astounding 10 million lives (preventing approximately 20% of adult deaths) per year.

This report could not be more timely. We are at a juncture where human and planetary wellbeing is no longer a fluff piece sandwiched into the 10 o’clock hour. The Amazon, called “the lungs of the Earth,” plays a critical role in the world’s oxygen and carbon cycles. Yet it continues to be severely threatened because of deforestation, 80% of which can be attributed to the cattle industry. Research from the Florida International University points to livestock production as the single greatest driver of habitat loss in the U.S. and around the world.

The pandemic has also highlighted the need to reinforce our immune systems and physical resilience. And the real threat of food shortages and eminent supply chain disruptions at major meat processing plants, due to Covid-19 outbreaks, further supports a reinvigorated look at sustainability. All of these critical issues point to the need to begin transitioning on a large scale to plant-based diets as a way to support ourselves, our communities, and our planetary health.

What’s really in a burger?

A burger is more than a meat patty on a bun. One burger uses 14.6 gallons of water, 13.5 pounds of feed, and 64.5 square feet of land to produce. Additional environmental effects included the rerelease of 0.13 pounds of methane and 4 pounds of carbon dioxide. To put this in perspective the amount of water needed to produce one pound of beef is 47 times that to produce one pound of vegetables, and the carbon footprint of broccoli is nearly 13 times less than beef.

Over 45 million acres of U.S. land is used as pastures to raise livestock and this contributes to factors like greenhouse gas emission, loss of biodiversity, and land and water use.

Small changes that add up

“It’s possible to feed every single person, not just calories, but a healthy diet,” Dr. Brent Loken, co-author of The Lancet report and a conservation scientist, told ABC News. He and his co-authors detailed the ideal plant-based diet focuses on vegetables and grains and is low in fats, oils, and meat.

The near-term benefits of reducing red and processed meat reduced each individual’s risk of death and disease, like cancer, obesity, and heart conditions. The long-term future benefits of plant-based food systems for the planet means cleaner air, better water quality, and drastically lower pollution.

The path forward

To stem many of the greenhouse emissions and pollution concerns, the report says that significant changes would need to be made by 2050. This includes improvements to soil conservation regulations and food waste reduction.

The key findings from researchers are a compelling call-to-action for planet-wide lasting change. Conscientiously choosing plants as a food source is the single most powerful way to make a difference for Earth’s big wellness goals.

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