The next time you stroll through your supermarket, take a breather by the poultry. Pick up a chicken and place the package in your cart. Next, walk over to the beverage aisle and put nine gallon-sized jugs of water next to the unfortunate bird.
Finally, when you get home, pop off the caps, and dump all nine of those plastic jugs down the drain.
Why, you might protest, would you waste so much valuable water? Isn't much of our nation plagued by drought? Don't countless people worldwide not have access to clean, safe water?
In fact, dumping out nine gallons of water is essentially what happens each time a chicken is purchased; that's how much water it takes to slaughter one bird, according to the EPA. That's more waste water per live pound of animal than even at pig and cattle slaughter plants. And that's just for slaughter — an additional thousand gallons are needed to actually raise the bird, including growing and processing grain into feed.
This is one reason the first recommendation issued by the United Nations for World Water Day each spring urges us to "replace meat with another source of protein." In short, just skipping that one purchase of a chicken could save more water than not showering for six months — not that I'd recommend trying the latter.
Aside from the fact that raising and slaughtering animals for food requires so much more water than enjoying a more plant-based diet, the factory farming industry is squandering our planet's other finite resources in ways that are alarming an increasing number of people.
As Oxfam notes, "it takes massive amounts of land, water, fertilizer, oil and other resources to produce meat, significantly more than it requires to grow other nutritious and delicious kinds of food."
Fortunately, it's never been easier — or tastier — to conserve precious resources. The explosion of delicious protein-packed vegetarian foods in the marketplace is making an Earth-friendlier diet more convenient than ever before.
Restaurant chains like Chipotle offer fantastic meaty options like tofu Sofritas and multiple kinds of beans, while others like Denny's carry veggie burgers that regularly please even the most carnivorous consumer.
More and more of us are choosing these options. Whether through popular concepts like Meatless Mondays or Mark Bittman's Vegan Before 6, we Americans are now eating about 10 percent less meat per capita than we were in 2007. It seems that dietary concepts like the Three Rs ("reducing" or "replacing" consumption of animal products, while "refining" our diets by switching to products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards) are here to stay.
The case for starting to take some holidays from meat is more compelling than ever before. Whether to protect the planet, help animals or trim our waistlines, there's no shortage of reasons so many millions of Americans are enjoying eating more plants and fewer animals.
None of us should have to squander so many resources just to eat a meal. Tuesday is Earth Day, and we can each stand up for our world — every time we sit down to eat.
Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @pshapiro.