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Bean sprouts, pickled vegetables, herbs, and limes are part of the lettuce cup spread at Asian Box restaurant in Mountain View, Calif. on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. (Dan Honda/Staff)

As Earth Day approaches, many of us will be thinking of ways we can lighten our footprint on the planet. Sometimes the task seems daunting. But New York Times columnist Mark Bittman has a powerful recommendation for not only protecting the planet, but protecting our health: eating a more plant-based diet.

Bittman recently wrote, "By reducing the amount of meat we eat, we can grow and kill fewer animals. That means less environmental damage, including climate change; fewer antibiotics in the water and food supplies; fewer pesticides and herbicides; reduced cruelty; and so on. It also means better health for you."

This Earth Day, many Americans are celebrating by participating in Meatless Monday and otherwise cutting back on meat. And that's a good thing. Here's why: First, eating more plants and fewer animals can make us healthier. Studies show that balanced plant-based diets lower risk for our biggest killers, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Choosing more meat-free options also helps prevent inhumane treatment of animals on industrial factory farms. More than a million animals are slaughtered for food every single hour in the United States alone.

Nearly all of them are raised in conditions so inhumane that few of us would even want to bear witness to their misery, let alone support it with our consumer dollars.


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High demand for meat is one factor that pressures farmers to opt for more industrialized production systems where they can lose touch with old-fashioned husbandry. This means animals are often packed in cages to so tightly they're barely able to move an inch. These systems also squeeze traditional family farmers who have a harder time competing with factory farms.

For these reasons, Meatless Monday is a key element of The Humane Society of the United States' philosophy of compassionate eating -- or the 3R's -- "reducing" or "replacing" consumption of animal products, and "refining" our diets by choosing products from sources that enforce higher animal welfare standards.

It turns out that what's good for our bodies and animals is good for our planet, too. The animal agribusiness industry is one of the greatest contributors to global warming.

A report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concluded that animal agriculture accounts for nearly 20 percent of global, human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

Whether it's Meatless Monday or more, the time couldn't be better to recognize that the greening of the planet can start on our plate.

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. He will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday at the James Irvine Foundation Conference Center, 353 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, for Oakland Veg Week. Follow him at Twitter.com/pshapiro.