This April 22 marks the 44th anniversary of Earth Day, and while today's celebrations often revolve around large festivals featuring famed musicians or rallies calling upon lawmakers to stop global warming, the origins were rooted in something quite different. In 1970, Earth Day was, first and foremost, about empowering individuals to take meaningful actions in their everyday lives that, collectively, would contribute to the preservation of our planet.
So what are some simple steps we can take to make a difference? Sure, we can use energy-efficient light bulbs, install low-flow toilets or switch to a hybrid car. But perhaps the single most important action each of us can take to protect the planet is to switch from a meat-based to a more plant-based diet.
The scientific consensus is clear, and it's time we, as consumers, face the facts: Raising animals for food is a leading cause of pollution and resource depletion.
According to the United Nations, animal agriculture is responsible for nearly one fifth (18%) of all global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, and "livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems." The UN also reported that "A substantial reduction of impacts [from agriculture] would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change away from animal products."
Similar conclusions have been made by researchers at the University of Chicago who reported that the average American can do more to reduce global warming emissions by not eating meat, eggs, and dairy than by switching to a hybrid car. And according to the Environmental Defense Fund, "If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains ... the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off the road."
In addition to wreaking havoc on the environment, raising animals for food also causes immense animal suffering. Each year in the US, nine billion birds, pigs, and cows are killed for us to eat. Without adequate laws to protect them, most are tormented for months prior to slaughter. In fact, many of the routine abuses we perpetrate against the animals are so cruel, they'd result in criminal prosecution if those same abuses were inflicted upon the dogs and cats with whom we share our homes.
Egg-laying hens, for example, spend their lives crammed inside barren wire cages so restrictive, they can't even spread their wings, let alone nest or perch. Female pigs on breeding factory farms are typically immobilized in narrow metal gestation crate stalls that prevent these smart and highly social animals from even turning around.
Without a doubt, what we eat matters. Our everyday food choices have far-reaching effects on the planet and animals. That's why, this April 22 is not just Earth Day -- it also falls during US VegWeek (April 21-27), a nationwide campaign empowering people to create a kinder, greener, and healthier world by taking a 7-Day VegPledge.
US VegWeek was inspired by Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin who was the first lawmaker to sign up for a week-long VegPledge in 2009. That pledge has continued past the first week to this day; he now refers to his vegetarian diet as "aligning my morals with my menu."
Following Sen. Raskin's lead, 70 elected officials -- including US Senator Cory Booker and 14 US Representatives from California, Colorado, Arizona, Illinois, Rhode Island, Texas, Florida, Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York, and even Hawaii -- have signed up for the pledge this year in an effort to promote sustainability, community health, and animal welfare. Moreover, 16 jurisdictions have officially declared US VegWeek in their communities with proclamations or resolutions.