Plant-Based Diet: Healthier for Us and Our Planet

Anne Zwagers

Food impacts everything we’re working to change—energy, transportation, conservation. It’s all wrapped up in how we produce, process, distribute, and consume our food. We won’t get the equation right unless we get the food piece right.

—Rhea Suh, Food is the Solution, 2018

To keep the increase of climate warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (°C) from pre-industrial levels, the United Nations' Special Report on Climate Change and Land emphasizes the importance of a less resource-intensive diet. If global temperature rises to 2°C (compared to 1.5°C) it will exacerbate unsustainable agriculture through: reduced cereal crop yield, spread of disease, and water and nutrition shortage for livestock.[1]

How can the 1.5°C target be achieved?

One critical step is adopting a plant-based diet consisting of coarse grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, and animal-sourced food produced in low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions systems. By doing so, we can reduce food-related GHG emissions by up to 70% from now until 2050.

Globally, there has been growing interest in, and emphasis on, switching to a plant-based diet. Plant-based sales (such as tofu and meat alternatives) were up 32 percent in the two-year period from April 2017 through April 2019, and US consumers who identify as vegan (meaning they eat no meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or honey) increased 5 percent from 2014 to 2017. World Resources Institute (WRI), an international organization, has also adopted a company-wide policy that mandates all food purchased with WRI funds must be vegetarian (cannot contain meat or fish).

NRDC Catering Policy

NRDC’s policy guides food and beverage purchases to reflect both the findings from the UN report and the organization’s mission to protect the health of our people and planet. It addresses multiple facets of unsustainable agriculture, including red meat, which has the highest GHG emissions per gram of protein and contributes to a third of all arable land being used for feed-crop. The Policy further outlines waste reduction and purchasing ethically produced and sustainably sourced catering:

1. Reduce waste.

  • Food must arrive in either recyclable, compostable, and/or reusable containers with no dinnerware (plates, napkins, utensils) or single use packets. Plastic bags are not acceptable.

2. Provide meals that are ethically produced and sustainably sourced. 

Best Choices

  • Vegan foods are Certified Organic
  • Ingredients are seasonal and locally sourced
  • Beverages are Certified Organic and/or Fair Trade Certified

Acceptable Alternatives 

  • Vegetarian foods are Certified Organic
  • Eggs are Certified Organic in addition to pasture-raised or cage-free
  • Dairy is Certified Organic
  • Seafood is marked as “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by Seafood Watch
  • Poultry is raised without routine antibiotics, Certified Organic, and/or labeled No Antibiotic Ever

Cannot Include

  • Red meat (lamb, beef, and pork)
  • Seafood with unknown origins or listed as “Avoid” by Seafood Watch
  • Poultry raised with routine antibiotics and/or not Certified Organic
  • Palm oil

In addition to having strict requirements around product characteristics, NRDC addresses excess ordering and ensures any leftover food is made available to staff or is donated. The way food is purchased and handled can either further contribute to the degradation of the planet or be a strong tool against climate change.

Pulling together

The broken food system is driven by consumer demand—so we have the power to change it. The good news is that the American diet has already, over the course of the past 45 years, been shifting towards less eggs, milk, and beef.[2] By further reducing consumption, supporting environmentally and socially conscious products, and abandoning purchases such as red meat or unsustainably caught seafood, we can radically shape the future health of the planet.


[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/12/13/whats-on-your-table-how-americas-diet-has-changed-over-the-decades/
[2] https://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf

About the Authors

Maria McCain

Sustainability Coordinator, Facilities

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