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Deep impact: The toll your protein takes on the Earth

This post is part of Protein Angst, a series on the environmental and nutritional complexities of high-protein foods. Our goal is to publish a range of perspectives on these very heated topics. Add your feedback and story suggestions here.

A field of soybeans -- most of which are grown for animal feed. (Photo by Carol Vanhook.)

Now that we’ve touched on how much protein we need, let’s talk about how the production process behind high protein foods impacts the environment.

First, the big picture: While meat consumption has gone down slightly here in the U.S. in recent years, the rest of the world appears to be on the opposite track. Nearly half the protein eaten in the developed world comes from animals (compared to 28 percent of protein, worldwide) and, as incomes in larger developing nations like Brazil, India and China have picked up, so has the taste for meat.

World meat consumption more than doubled between 1950 and 2009 (bringing annual intake per person to over 90 pounds or around a quarter pound a day), and the uptick in consumption of eggs and milk has been similarly staggering. If we continue at this rate, by 2050 we’ll be eating two-thirds more animal protein globally than we are today.

Add to all this the fact that animal protein is more resource intensive to produce than fruits, vegetables, and grains, and you begin to understand why it’s especially important that the world gets its protein plan in order.

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Protein: How much do we need?

This post is part of Protein Angst, a series on the environmental and nutritional complexities of high-protein foods. Our goal is to publish a range of perspectives on these very heated topics. Add your feedback and story suggestions here.

almonds in bowlPhoto by Nomadic Lass.

Protein: It’s the center of the American plate and the central component of many weight-loss diets. And if you spend much time looking at ads in gyms or men’s magazines, you might think it’s the most important nutrient ever discovered. Granted, protein is essential for body processes like cell growth and repair, so if you don’t get enough of it there can be serious health consequences. But how much protein do we really need?

Less than you might think (or than marketers of high-protein products would have you believe). The CDC reports that most Americans get more than enough protein, so the average person doesn’t need to worry about deficiencies. According to American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommendations, most active adults only need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. (A kilogram is 2.2 pounds.) So a person who weighs 125 pounds needs 45 to 57 g of protein in a day; for someone who weighs 175 pounds, it’s 65 to 80 g. Serious athletes need a bit more, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Read more: Food

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Seriously, now — why aren’t organics getting affordable?

So you like whole-grain bread, pesticide-free plums, and low-fat meat? Better ask for a raise. A recent study by researchers at the University of California-Davis reported that U.S. shoppers who consistently choose healthy foods spend nearly 20 percent more on groceries. The study also said the higher price of these healthier choices can consume 35 to 40 percent of a low-income family's grocery budget. That's bad news for public health. It's also bad news for the organic-food market, since organics usually carry the highest price tag of all the healthy stuff out there. Do organics make the list? Eventually, analysts …