Can Peanut Butter and Jelly Save the World?

Eating plant-based meals conserves natural resources and slows global warming

Grandfather and grandson making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
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Looking for small ways to make a big difference for the environment? Why not start by making yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

As members of the PB&J Campaign (no, I’m not kidding) like to say, “You don’t have to change your whole diet to change the world. Just start with lunch.”

Eating a plant-based lunch (such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bean burrito, vegetarian chili, or a hearty salad) instead of an animal-based lunch (such as a hamburger, a tuna or grilled cheese sandwich, fish and chips, or chicken nuggets) will save water, preserve land and slow global warming.

How Eating a PB&J Sandwich Slows Global Warming
Every time you eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or other plant-based meal instead of one that features red meat, such as a hamburger, you save the equivalent of almost 3.5 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. Eating a strictly plant-based meal compared to the average American lunch still saves 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. That’s about 40 percent of the carbon you would save by driving a hybrid vehicle for the day instead of a standard sedan.

How Eating a PB&J Sandwich Saves Water
Growing plants for food takes a lot less water than raising animals. As a result, every time you substitute a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some other plant-based meal for an animal-based meal such as a hamburger, you save about 280 gallons of water. Eat three PB&J sandwiches a month instead of animal-based meals and you can save as much water as you would by switching to a low-flow showerhead.

How Eating a PB&J Sandwich Saves Land
Raising animals for food takes a lot of space. For example, animal products require 6 to 17 times as much land as soy to produce the same amount of protein. Eating a plant-based lunch like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a hamburger, ham sandwich, or another animal-based meal saves anywhere from 12 to 50 square feet of land from deforestation, overgrazing, and pesticide and fertilizer pollution.

How Eating One PB&J Sandwich Helps the Environment
By eating lower on the food chain—plants instead of animals—you also consume fewer resources. Why? Because, basically, everything you eat comes from plants. You either eat plants directly—in the form of fruits, vegetables and plant products such as peanut butter—or indirectly after animals have converted plants into meat, milk, eggs, butter and cheese.

The problem is that animals are not very efficient as living food factories that convert plants into food for humans. Animals use most of the plants they eat to produce the energy they need to walk around and keep breathing. To stay alive long enough to become part of your lunch or dinner menu, every cow, pig and chicken has to eat much more protein, carbohydrates and other nutrients than it will yield once the ax finally falls. As a result, it takes several pounds of plants to produce one pound of beef, pork, chicken, eggs or milk.

Inevitably, that means it also takes a lot more land, water and fuel to produce one pound of meat, milk or eggs than it does to produce one pound of edible plants. Not only do the animals need food, water and room to roam, but growing the plants to feed the animals that will, in turn, become food for you requires even more land and water as well as fuel for farm machinery and irrigation pumps.

To help provide some context, the PB&J Campaign says the water required to produce the beef in one hamburger could grow enough peanuts for 17 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And the land required to put that same beef patty on your bun could produce enough peanuts for 19 PB&J lunches.

How You and Your Diet Can Make a Difference
Basically, this all comes down to your power as a consumer. Every time you choose a hamburger, omelet or grilled cheese sandwich over a plant-based meal, you’re telling your local restaurants and supermarkets to buy more meat, eggs and dairy products. By choosing more plant-based meals, you’re asking for less meat and a more efficient use of resources. Either way, your unspoken but unmistakable messages are received by your local merchants and conveyed to wholesalers and farmers.

Want to do more? Share this information with your friends, coworkers and family members and urge them to take action. Encourage your school or office cafeteria, and the local restaurants you frequent, to offer more plant-based dishes. Organize a weekly PB&J lunch (or other plant-based meals) at work, home or school and calculate the positive environmental contribution you’ve made.

See page 2 to learn why PB&J and other plant-based meals are better than seafood for the environment.

A Special Word About Seafood
Often, when people start thinking about reducing their meat consumption, their thoughts turn to seafood. Unfortunately, if your goal in consuming fewer meat-based meals is to eat more efficiently, reduce your carbon footprint, and free up more resources, then seafood is no better option than beef, chicken or pork.

All seafood arrives on your dinner plate from one of two sources: it’s either caught by commercial fishing boats or raised on fish farms.

About half of the seafood we eat is wild-caught, but commercial fishing creates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions because fishing boats use a lot of fuel.

There are also other environmental problems with wild-caught seafood. First, 69 percent of the world’s major fish species are endangered and in decline, according to estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Second, many commercial fishing methods do a lot of environmental harm. For example, trawling scrapes up everything in its path, turning delicate marine ecosystems into undersea deserts, while long-line fishing results in a tremendous amount of bycatch, fish that are hooked unintentionally and discarded in pursuit of the target species.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, poses many of the same problems as the process of farming other animals for food. If farmed fish and shellfish eat grain and soy, then raising them commercially is as inefficient as fattening cattle or hogs.

If the farmed fish eat fish meal, which is made from wild- caught fish, then they contribute indirectly to the environmental problems caused by commercial fishing: greenhouse gas emissions, over-fishing, bycatch, and environmental degradation.

The next time you go grocery shopping or order a meal in a restaurant, don't think exclusively about flavor and price.

Give some thought as well to the long-term environmental effects of the food you choose to eat. It makes a difference.


  • Global warming statistics: The global warming calculations are based on information from “Diet, Energy, and Global Warming,” by Gidon Eshel and Pamela A. Martin of the University of Chicago.
  • Water statistics: The water figures are based on information in “Water Footprint of Nations,” a report by the 2004 UNESCO Institute for Water Education.
  • Land statistics: The land statistics are based on information from the “Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices,” by Lucas Reijnders and Sam Soret, which appeared in a 2003 supplement to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and on the protein output per acre for soy and peanuts reported in the 1996 edition of Food, Energy, and Society, edited by Pimentel and Pimentel.
See page 1 to learn why PB&J and other plant-based meals are good for the environment.