When you reach for a doughnut, do you hear a scolding voice in your head reminding you—You are what you eat? That’s your doctor’s voice warning you that steady doughnut consumption will likely lead you to look round and pudgy, just like a doughnut.
Now listen closely and you might hear a second voice. That’s Mother Nature, who also has something to say about what you eat. Our food choices not only have an impact on our health, but also on the health of the planet as well. As climate change continues to affect us and our planet, we need to start taking a climate-conscious approach to our diet.
Consider this: Twenty-six percent of global CO₂ emissions comes from food production. Nearly one-third of those emissions comes from livestock and fishery, primarily from the methane gas produced through the digestive process of cattle and industrial fishing methods. Crop production (for human consumption and animal feed), processing and land use account for the rest of CO₂ emissions from food production. For example, the Amazon is regularly deforested to clear land for cattle. Our love of a good steak, as well as other food preferences, can have a direct and devastating impact on the Amazon and other parts of the world.
Beyond food production, our dietary habits also require supply chain solutions. Processing, packaging, transportation and retail activities follow basic food production for getting the food from source to table. And as food products travel from their various sources to our stomachs, some of it is wasted along the way. Unfortunately, food waste—along the supply chain and by the consumer—results in 3.3 gigatons per year of CO₂ emissions.
Climate-conscious consumers often believe that eating locally produced food is better for the environment, but what you eat is actually more important than where the food comes from. For example, the production of 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef creates 60 kilograms (132.3 pounds) of CO₂ emissions, whereas the production of 1 kilogram of peas produces 0.9 kilograms (1.9 pounds) of CO₂ emissions. Eating your peas isn’t just good for you; it’s good for the Earth, too.
Clearly, our beef-eating habits are not good for the environment. But what about dairy? It’s a different food group, but our ice cream and our burgers and such essentially come from the same source. Both items require similar processing, packaging, transportation and retail activities, and the cattle that produce your milk still need the same amount of feed and land. So you can feel good about limiting the amount of beef in your diet, but don’t feel too good if you’re still consuming dairy that relies on cow’s milk.
Naturally, pork and poultry register on the list of CO₂ emissions sources, but they are not as high as cattle. Beef produces about 50 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per 100 grams of protein vs. pork, which produces a little over 7 kilograms or poultry (5.7 kilograms). Opting for pork or chicken over beef will win you more green points.
Stages of Food Production
To understand the impact of food production on the climate, we have to consider the different components or stages of food production. Land use change (the process in which land is converted for a different use) and farming processes, like the application of fertilizer, represent the greatest contributors of carbon emissions: together they represent 80% of the carbon footprint of most foods.
When looking at our dietary choices, we must also think about the water usage linked with food production. Meat and dairy products require more freshwater withdrawal than plant-based products. For example, it takes 5,605 liters (1,481 gallons) of fresh water to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cheese. Compare that to the 28 liters (7 gallons) required to produce 1 kilogram of root vegetables.
A diet that’s heavy on plant-based products is far better for the environment, but it doesn’t come without environmental consequences. Certain farming processes lead to the runoff of nitrogen and other nutrients into bodies of water. This promotes the growth of algae and aquatic plants, which depletes fish species and leads to a deterioration of water quality. This process—the pollution of water bodies and ecosystems with excess nutrients—is called eutrophication. While many agricultural practices contribute to eutrophication, the production of meat- and dairy-based products still inflicts more harm relative to the production of plant-based products.
We can clearly see that our food choices matter to the health of our environment, but it’s easy to fall back on the notion that positive change will only come when people act in large numbers. We often think that changes at the individual level won’t amount to much, so why bother?
Consider this: If a family of five reduces their meat intake to just once a week for a full year, they’ll reduce their CO₂ emissions by 655 kilograms (1,444 pounds). Even in small numbers, we can make a difference, and we know we’ll experience better health as a result. That family of five may even find Mother Nature quietly whispering her thanks as they dig into their weekly plant-heavy meal.