Serve Plants to Save the Planet
By Jennifer Molidor, PhD
Climate change, habitat loss and pollution are overwhelming our planet. Thankfully, these enormous threats are being met by a bold new wave of environmental activism.
But there's one place where our movement hasn't brought mass extinction and the climate crisis to the table: The literal tables at environmental events — from local board meetings to international conferences where meat-centered menus are still the norm.
With holiday parties rapidly approaching, now is the time for environmental groups to walk the talk by adopting Earth-friendly menus for their events.
The global scientific community agrees that we must reduce meat and dairy production to tackle the most pressing environmental disasters of our time. To do that, we have to change what we eat. Plant-forward changes and significant meat and dairy reduction must begin with the meals served at environmentally focused events.
The catering industry is no small potatoes. Catering sales in the U.S. are worth more than $11 billion each year. Over the past three years, the industry has grown by nearly 8 percent annually. Changing event menus can make a big difference in reducing the environmental impact of U.S. food production and shifting the way people think about food.
For every 100 people at a holiday party or event, a plant-based menu can save more than a ton of greenhouse gas emissions, nearly an acre of habitat and 13,000 gallons of water. Those benefits are tallied up in Catering to the Climate: How Earth-friendly Menus at Events Can Help Save the Planet, a new report by the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work.
Making this catering shift can bring other environmental savings. For example, those plant-based choices can eliminate two tons of manure and the toxic byproducts of improperly contained manure that contaminate public waterways and lands. In fact, the manure footprint of most animal-based dishes is greater than the actual weight of the food served. On the other hand, dishes free of animal products have no manure footprint.
Catering to the Climate found that planet-friendly menus are a hugely effective way to fight the climate crisis. Each person who selects plant-based dishes at a day-long event cuts as much greenhouse pollution as would be emitted by 41 miles of driving, powering the average home for one day or charging 2,100 smart phones.
In addition, that one person's low-impact meal choices would spare more than 400 square feet of farmland, prevent about 100 pounds of manure pollution and save 250 gallons of water.
When an event planner multiplies that across their entire guest list by serving plant-based dishes as the default, the environmental savings are substantial. A low-impact menu can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 85 percent, water by 72 percent and land use by 93 percent, in addition to nearly eliminating manure pollution.
Menus that focus on plant-based dishes aren't just virtuous — they're also trending. People are increasingly seeking foods that are healthier for them and the planet. And for environmental events, serving plant-based meals sends a message that connects the movement with its own values and actions.
As we celebrate progress made in 2019 and start planning out a new year, environmental event planners should cater to the climate with delicious menus that honor the work we're doing and support a sustainable food system.
Jennifer Molidor is a senior food campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
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