Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Our food choices can save the planet. Sustainable eating is imperative for our health and the health of the Earth.
Sustainability and Food Choices
Normally, when I thought about climate change, I mostly pondered the burning of fossil fuels and increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. In contrast, when I thought about food, issues of weight loss, healthy diets, and what’s for dinner came to mind. I didn’t make a strong connection between the food I was consuming and its effect on climate change.
You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that what we eat is a major source of the greenhouse gases that are contributing to the environmental degradation that threatens our very existence.
Shockingly, it’s rare even when environmental experts address this serious issue.
The Netflix documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret will open your eyes to the problem of animal agriculture and its surprisingly powerful impact on climate change. It also reveals the ignorance, feigned or otherwise, of international organizations that seem unaware or unwilling to address the issue.
How food impacts the environment gained greater prominence in 2019, upon The Lancet publishing a commission report entitled Food in the Anthropocene: The EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The report, authored by 37 scientists, and the first fully scientific study of what a sustainable healthy diet may look like, found that how we produce and consume food are major threats to our survival.
The report further documents the impossibility of feeding the 10 billion people who will be inhabiting the planet by 2050 unless dramatic changes are made. This increase will mean a 50-fold increase in food production.
Strikingly, the researchers went as far as to call for a new philosophy of eating for all of us.
An important take-away from these reports is that food directly and profoundly impacts the health of the planet. Wise food choices keep us healthy but also support healthy ecosystems.
Our health and the health of the planet are intimately linked. More about this later.
The issue of food production and climate change is complex. It has many variables such as deforestation, methane emissions, production of feed for livestock, processing agricultural products into food, transport, refrigeration, packaging, and food waste.
In this post, I’ll focus on two related food issues:
Ø First, how our everyday food choices are a major driver of global warming and ecological degradation
Ø Second, how changes in the food we eat can help restore balance to our ecosystems.
Climate Change and Food
There is a growing scientific consensus that we cannot effectively address climate change without addressing how we produce and consume food globally.
The World Wildlife Fund states that the global food system is a significant driver of numerous ecosystem disruptions due to climate change:
“We need to feed our growing global population. But the way we are doing this right now threatens all our futures. A third of all land is already used for crops and livestock. And yet, food production continues to be the main cause of deforestation and other habitat loss. This growing demand for food and continued stripping away of our environment is destabilizing many natural systems we rely on for our well-being and survival.”
Specifically, this is what they found:
· 24% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from food production
· 73% of deforestation and land conversion is caused by agriculture
· 35% of global fish stocks have been overused and are unsustainable
· 33% of food produced globally is lost in the supply chain or thrown out
· 9% of greenhouse gas emissions come directly from food waste.
Here’s a startling comparison of the major drivers of greenhouse gases emissions:
25% electricity and heat production
16% buildings and other energy use
Imagine, all the cars and trucks, trains, and airplanes combined make up 14% of planetary greenhouse gases while food production is responsible for 24% of the planet’s greenhouse gases. Livestock alone account for 14% or greenhouse emissions which is equal to all forms of transportation.
According to Bioneers, a visionary nonprofit aiming to restore both people and planet:
“Livestock globally emit 18 % of all greenhouse gases (more than transportation); one third of global grain goes to feed livestock; in North America half of all synthetic fertilizers are used to grow grains; nitrogen fertilizers emit 75 % of agricultural nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more damaging to the climate than carbon; and half the energy used by agriculture is used to feed livestock.”
Addressing the impact of food on the earth’s ecosystems is not tinkering on the edges.
Changing how food is produced and the types of food we eat can be major steps in combating climate change, ecosystem degradation, and ultimately secure our own survival.
If all the greenhouse gas emissions were dramatically reduced in transportation, industry, and electrical production, we would still not have solved the problem of climate change without addressing the environmental impact of food
What Can We Do To Help?
You might be feeling helpless right now. Tackling animal agriculture is a tall order, especially for one individual.
It might not be as bad as you think. Changes in what we eat can have a direct and profound effect on climate change. Let’s look at it from the grass roots level of personal food choices.
Ben Houlton, director of the John Muir Institute of the Environment at UC Davis, and postdoctoral student Maya Almaraz put together some smart research on how our diets, the foods we choose to eat, can have a direct impact on the health of the planet.
Houlton and Almaraz have found that the carbon footprint of foods varies. If you eat a grass-fed ribeye steak you emit up to 330 grams of carbon, chicken 52 grams, fish, 40 grams, vegetables, 14 grams, lentils, 2 grams. Quiet a difference.
Why does beef and lamb have such an impact on the environment?
Cows and sheep emit lots of gas in the form of Methane that is 25 times more potent than CO2. It also takes a lot of land and a billion tons of grain to feed all that livestock. Meat heavy diets contribute disproportionately to global warming.
The US is one of the leading consumers of meat in the world.
Is There A Sustainable Diet?
In comparing a variety of diets for their effect on the environment, Houlton and Almaraz show that a vegan diet is best, followed by vegetarian, and Mediterranean. However, they found little significant difference between the three. You don’t have to give up meat entirely, but you do have to reduce it dramatically.
Take a few minutes to look at their short video that lays out exactly how you can make the food choices that are healthy for you and sustainable for the planet.
Adopting a plant-based diet would result in a huge reduction in atmospheric methane and CO2. A bonus would be that the one billion tons of grain now feeding livestock could be used to feed the nearly 700 million hungry people around the globe.
If enough of us dropped our consumption of meat by up to 90%, greenhouse gases could be reduced by 14%. That’s equivalent to taking one billion cars off the road!
A diet that is healthy for you is healthy for our ecosystem. By becoming plant-based you can dramatically reduce the incidence of chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, etc. This same diet can reduce the degradation of our ecosystem and mitigate the threat to our survival.
According to the Eat Lancet Commission:
“The universal adoption of a planetary health diet would help avoid severe environmental degradation and prevent approximately 11 million human deaths annually.”
To the degree possible, eat mostly vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and nuts, while limiting red meat (one serving per week), poultry, dairy, and processed sugars. As Michael Pollan has said: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."
Here is a visual on the greenhouse gas emissions of specific foods that can help you make sustainable, climate friendly food decisions:
A Financial Times Food Revolution video explains the relationship between sustainable eating and healthy eating. It’s only 3 minutes long but packed with great information.
I know its daunting to move to a new diet regimen. Here is a helpful plant-based recipe site that can help you make the transition. Sustainable eating can be tasty, nutritious, and fun.
Restoring balance to the planet is an urgent imperative. Our survival depends on it. Making sustainable food choices can dramatically mitigate the amount of greenhouse gases driving climate change. Each of us can help by reducing the consumption of foods, such as red meat, poultry, and dairy that support a wasteful and dangerous global food system. By doing so, we also reduce our chances of developing chronic diseases. Opt for legumes (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts), whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
Our health and the health of the planet are in the balance.
To deepen your knowledge of healthy and sustainable food choices, check out these sites:
Bioneers: Eco-Hip Hop
Harvard School of Public Health: Tips for Sustainable Eating
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Sustainable Eating
NY Times: Climate Friendly Cooking
Chatelaine: Sustainable Food Recipes (not all vegan)
Forbes: 5 Sustainable Food Apps
If you wish to take your involvement beyond your individual food choices and encompass transforming the production and management of food, deforestation, water conservation, and land usage, the following sites may be helpful:
Quartz: The Global Food System Is Broken and Needs Radical Reform
Union of Concerned Scientists: The Case for Presidential Action to Reform our Farm and Food System
Cory Booker: A Savagely Broken Food System
UN Environmental Programme: Hungry for Change: The Global Food System
Bioneers: Biodiversity on the Farm.
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The information contained in this post is meant for educational purposes only and does not constitute a replacement for medical diagnosis or treatment.