Global warming is very real, and it is the preeminent danger to human civilization today. Climate scientists increasingly focus on food production as a source of heat-trapping gases. What choices can we as individuals make to lower our “carbon foodprint”?
What Does a Diet for a Healthy Planet Look Like?
How is food one of the key factors in an environmental crisis that threatens the basis of life on earth? How is the environment affected by the foods we eat and the food system that produces them?
The Global Food Crisis
According to hunger statistics from WFP, 795 million people in the world do not have enough to eat. We now have over 7 billion people who call planet Earth “home.” By the year 2040, this number is expected to increase to 9 billion; by 2100, it could reach a massive 11 billion. At the same time, due to the spread of prosperity, there’s an increased demand for meat, eggs, and dairy products; this demand boosts pressure to grow more corn and soybeans, as feed crops for animals.
The Food-Climate Connection
Facts from Taking a Bite out of Climate Change:
- Our current global food system is responsible for one-third of global greenhouse emissions.
- Almost every single aspect of our modern industrial system creates greenhouse gas emissions.
- Heavily industrialized agriculture, especially the conventional production of livestock, produces significant emissions of greenhouse gasses.
- Our current global food system completely depends on fossil fuels for transportation and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
- Agriculture is the largest use of water worldwide.
- Runoff from both synthetic fertilizers and animal waste are major polluters.
- As tropical forests contain at least half the Earth’s species, the clearance of some 17 million hectares each year is causing a dramatic loss of biodiversity.
How can we feed the world—today and tomorrow?
Let’s begin with this video from Anna Lappé.
The biggest players in the food industry—from pesticide pushers to fertilizer makers to food processors and manufacturers—spend billions of dollars every year not selling food, but selling the idea that we need their products to feed the world. But, do we really need industrial agriculture to feed the world? Can sustainably grown food deliver the quantity and quality we need—today and in the future? Our first Food MythBusters movie takes on these questions in under seven minutes. So next time you hear them, you can too.
— Hunger & Food Security | Food MythBusters
Twentieth-Century Degradation of Our Food System
There’s just tremendous waste built into our food system, and then of course the outcome: creating a people such as we are today whose food is really a health threat, that many of our top diseases are now food-related.
— Frances Moore Lappe, author, Diet for a Small Planet: The Book That Started a Revolution in the Way Americans Eat
Agriculture has changed more in the past two generations than it did in the previous 12,000 years. The twentieth-century has seen the rapid and radical transformation of our food system from sustainably based, locally focused production, to a fossil-fuel addicted industrialized system. Unfortunately, almost every single aspect of our modern industrial system creates greenhouse gas emissions. Another big problem is the rapid growth of livestock production. Indeed, to produce 2.2 pounds of beef burns enough energy to light a 100 watt bulb for twenty days. — Sustainable Table | Agriculture, Energy & Climate Change
The Carbon Intensity of Foods
What’s fascinating is that public health experts recommend that we emphasize in our diets the same foods that scientists regard as most climate-friendly!
Comparing Food Group Emissions
The carbon intensity of food consumption differs greatly between the food groups.
Red meat is the most carbon intensive way to get food energy, followed by dairy, fruit and chicken. Cereals, oils and snacks are the least carbon intensive.
The Carbon Foodprint of Five Diets Compared
What is the impact of diet type on an individual’s foodprint?
Foodprints get smaller as less red meat, dairy, and chicken are consumed.
60% of each diet type is the same!
60% of food energy consumed is the same in all of these diet types. In all diet types, the following six food groups account for the 60% (1,560 out of the total 2,600 kcals of food consumed per day).
- Snacks, sugars
- Oils, spreads
- Cereals, breads
So the deal-breakers are the remaining three food groups!
The remaining three food groups account for the remaining 40% of food energy consumed (1,040 out of the total 2,600 kcals of food consumed per day).
- Chicken, fish pork
- Beef, lamb
Choose your diet type accordingly!
Remember, foodprints gets smaller as less red meat, dairy, and chicken are consumed. The five diet choices, from worst to best:
- The Meat Lover eats more red meat, white meat and dairy in place of some cereals, fruit and vegetables.
- The Average diet the average American diet is based on data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
- The No Beef diet is just the Average diet with all beef consumption switched to chicken.
- The Vegetarian switches away from beef and chicken to fruit and vegetables, while also reducing oils and snacks.
- Vegan does much the same as the Vegetarian while also eliminating dairy through further switching to cereals, fruits and vegetables.
Read more at The Carbon Foodprint of 5 Diets Compared.
It turns out that a diet for a healthy planet is also the same diet recommended for human beings!
What YOU Can Do to Reduce Your Carbon Foodprint
A person’s food footprint (foodprint) is all the emissions that result from the production, transportation and storage of the food supplied to meet their consumption needs.
— Read more at Shrink Your Food Footprint
Transition to a plant-based diet.
Choosing to eat less meat, or cutting out meat entirely, is one of the most important personal choices we can make to address climate change.
Did you know:
- Eating less beef is better for the environment than giving up cars!
- Eating one 8-oz steak produces as much greenhouse gas as driving 14 miles!
The single most important thing you can do is to transition to a plant-based diet.
There has been a lot less discussion of meat than a lot of the other factors, in terms of what we can do as individuals to influence climate change… But we need to talk about diet, and if that’s where we can make our impact, then that’s what people need to know, and understand.
— Roni Neff, research and policy director, Johns Hopkins Univ. Center for a Livable Future, Baltimore
If you look at the green split peas, lentils, black beans, these cost pennies… all of the beans are very, very high in protein. You’re not going to go wrong with beans.
— Neal Barnard, MD, president, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Washington, DC
Reduce food waste and spoilage.
Eat foods in season, grown locally.
This minimizes gasoline usage in shipping.
Compost your leftover plant food in your garden.
This further reduces production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
This cuts down on impulse buying of items that might spoil before you use them, and saves money.
Use smaller plates.
This is a natural incentive to eat less, trimming waste and waistlines!
Instead of fast, rushed food, savor your meal!
Slow down, eat with others, notice the delicious aromas, the sweet and sour flavors, the chewy textures. This way, it’s easier to be satisfied and grateful for your food.
Vote with your fork and take better care of yourself!
Remember that marketing of foods is for profit, not necessarily the health of your body or our planet!
For Further Exploration
- Blog post 5 Ways Factory Farming is Killing the Environment, by Kate Good.
- Web article Taking a Bite out of Climate Change.
- Web article Good food, healthy planet.
- Website Eat Low Carbon.
- Website Food MythBusters Public radio project The Diet-Climate Connection, created in association with WGBH/Boston and distributed worldwide by NPR. Includes free booklet Friendly Food Guide.
What Do You Think?
I would really enjoy hearing your thoughts on this important subject. To be honest, until I researched this post, I did not realize just how strong the ties are between agriculture and the environment. Did anything here surprise you? What have you done/ will you do to reduce your carbon foodprint?