For the Earth, Your Health and Your Pocketbook, Try Meatless Monday

With the world about to celebrate Earth Day, here's something everyone can do to help the environment, public health, their own health and their budget: Stop eating meat on Monday.

Meatless Monday is an international movement that offers people a powerful weekly cue to meaningful action. What it asks of us is easy to grasp and simple to perform and the benefits it offers are far-reaching and timely.

In times of crisis, America has called on its citizens to sacrifice for a common purpose. Meatless Mondays were a staple of the war years in the last century. A similar concerted effort will be needed to address today's triple threat of climate change, chronic disease and recession.

A meat-based diet has been found to require twice as much energy to produce as a vegetarian diet, so going meatless one day a week can reduce the burden that our food production practices place on the environment.

Human activities are largely responsible for the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change. Among them, the industrial production of meat is substantial. The United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that livestock generates nearly one-fifth of the world's man-made greenhouse gases -- far more than transportation. Much of this in the form of methane from cattle belching and manure, but it is also in the form of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide has roughly 300 times the heat trapping effect of carbon dioxide and is derived largely from fertilizer used in industrial agriculture.

To meet the growing worldwide demand for meat, large areas of tropical rain forest continue to be cleared for ranch lands and feed production in Latin America. This releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and reduces the earth's capacity to trap carbon in biomass.

Reining in meat consumption for just one day a week can help reduce the magnitude of climate change -- and it can also promote public and environmental health, minimize worldwide water usage and help reduce fossil fuel dependence. Here's how:

There are more than nine billion food animals in production in the United States. The waste they produce is often concentrated in places where it seeps into ground water, runs off agricultural lands and pollutes streams and waterways. Manure and agricultural runoff contribute to massive "dead zones" -- areas devoid of most aquatic life -- such as those in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay. Further, animal waste poses immediate health hazards to workers and nearby communities, and can contaminate our food supply.

Industrial food animal production practices threaten to introduce antibiotic-resistant human pathogens. In the U.S., some 30 to 70 percent of all anti-microbials are administered in low doses in feed to make food animals raised in factory conditions reach market weight faster. The non-therapeutic use of these drugs encourages the rapid evolution of drug-resistant strains and places human populations at risk.

Additionally, the water needs of livestock are tremendous, far above those of vegetables and grains. The estimated 634 gallons of water it takes to produce a 5.2-ounce hamburger would be enough for a four-hour shower. Banishing that burger each Monday can help cut worldwide water usage.

And since about 40 calories of fossil-fuel energy go into every calorie of feedlot beef in America compared to 8.9 calories needed to produce one calorie of protein from spinach or 1.1 calories for soybeans, moderating meat consumption can be an effective way to decrease heavy fossil-fuel use in food production.

Such behavior can also have great benefits for your health and checkbook.

Diets abundant in red and processed meats have been linked to increased cancer risks, especially of the digestive tract. A study of more than 500,000 Americans ages 50 to 71 released in March by the National Cancer Institute found that people who eat high amounts of red and processed meats -- the typical American diet -- have an increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease.

Finally, on average, Americans eat some eight ounces of meat per day -- 45 percent more than recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cutting out meat once a week will help bring consumption more in line with USDA recommendations and reduce the risk of chronic preventable disease and obesity. That, in turn, can lead to a drop in what we spend on healthcare as individuals and as a nation.

In his inaugural address, President Obama heralded a new era of responsibility. His call prompted many to ask: What can I do to help? One answer is Meatless Monday.