Forthcoming updates to the Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods will include changes that highlight the amount of added sugars and make total calories per serving more visible. But what’s not being included on the labels are critically important “Extinction Facts,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which recently released its own labels under its Take Extinction Off Your Plate campaign.
Addressing the impact many popular foods have on the environment, the CBD says the meat-heavy American diet (the U.S. consumes about four times the global average for meat) comes with a high price tag in the way of carbon emissions, water pollution, and habitat loss, “impacts that were left out of the latest federal dietary guidelines despite support from experts and the public,” the Center says.
In recent years, scientists, food policy experts, and nutritionists have petitioned the FDA and USDA to include environmental considerations in dietary guidelines. But last October, the USDA said it does not believe “that the [Dietary Guidelines] are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.” It pointed instead to other areas of government focused on addressing environmental issues.
“What you eat has a profound effect on the planet. Every burger, chicken breast and bacon strip we consume requires enormous amounts of water, energy and greenhouse gases that put threatened and endangered wildlife at risk — along with our climate stability,” Jennifer Molidor, senior food campaigner with the Center, said in a statement. “Just as nutrition facts labels you see at the grocery store reveal the health cost of dietary choices, Extinction Facts labels expose the environmental cost of our choices.”
The Extinction Facts labels take on the familiar style of U.S. Nutrition Facts labels, but include data on the environmental cost of resource-intensive foods, specifically ground beef, bacon, and chicken breasts. One quarter-pound serving of ground beef (an average hamburger), for example, contributes 6.75 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, destroys 595 feet of wildlife habitat, uses 425 gallons of water, and produces nearly 10 pounds of manure, according to the Extinction Facts labels.
The labels also warn that “meat production causes more environmental harm than any other single industry, endangering wildlife, contributing at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and accounting for 80% of antibiotic use, 37% of pesticide use and nearly 50% of water use in the United States.”
Americans eat an average of three hamburgers per person per week, which cumulatively requires more than 21 trillion gallons water to produce, says the Center. "Americans also eat enough chicken to destroy 12.4 million acres of wildlife habitat, the equivalent of 12 million football fields. And American bacon consumption comes at a cost of 331 billion pounds of pig manure — which could fill 60,667 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”
The CBD sent a letter to the USDA in April requesting the agency take immediate action to address America’s meat consumption and its impact on the environment. The agency responded by stating that the Dietary Guidelines and Nutrition Facts were not the “appropriate vehicle” for addressing sustainability issues.
“Vital habitat and natural resources that go into each hamburger, chicken breast or serving of bacon add up quickly and put immense pressure on already endangered and threatened wildlife — like gray wolves, foxes, loggerhead sea turtles and Atlantic bluefin tuna,” said Molidor. “Cutting consumption of meat products by even a third could save significant land and water and dramatically reduce pollution.”
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