How food and climate change are connected: what to buy and cook in the face of global warming

Does what I eat affect climate change?

Yes. The global food system is responsible for about a quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases that humans generate each year. This includes growing and harvesting all plants, animals and animal products – beef, chicken, fish, milk, lentils, cabbage, corn and more. As well as processing, packaging and shipping food to markets around the world. If you eat food, you are part of this system.

How exactly is food related to global warming?

There are many connections. Here are four of them: 

1. When forests are cleared to make way for farms and livestock (this happens daily in some parts of the world), large stores of carbon are released into the atmosphere. It warms up the planet. 

2. When cows, sheep and goats digest their food, they produce methane. It is another powerful greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

3. Manure and flood fields that are used to grow rice and other crops are also major sources of methane.

4. Fossil fuels are used to drive agricultural machinery, produce fertilizers and deliver food around the world, which are burned and create emissions into the atmosphere. 

Which products have the biggest impact?

Meat and dairy products, especially from cows, have a huge impact. Livestock accounts for about 14,5% of the world’s greenhouse gases annually. This is about the same as from all cars, trucks, aircraft and ships combined.

Overall, beef and lamb have the most climate impact per gram of protein, while plant-based foods have the least impact. Pork and chicken are somewhere in between. A study published last year in the journal Science found the average greenhouse gas emissions (in kilograms of CO2) per 50 grams of protein:

Beef 17,7 Lamb 9,9 Farmed shellfish 9,1 Cheese 5,4 Pork 3,8 Farmed fish 3,0 Farmed poultry 2,9 Eggs 2,1 Milk 1,6 Tofu 1,0 Beans 0,4 Nuts 0,1 one 

These are average figures. United States-raised beef typically produces fewer emissions than Brazil- or Argentina-raised beef. Some cheeses may have a greater greenhouse gas impact than lamb chop. And some experts believe these numbers may underestimate the impact of farming- and pastoral-related deforestation.

But most studies agree on one thing: plant-based foods tend to have less impact than meat, and beef and lamb are the most harmful to the atmosphere.

Is there an easy way to choose food that would reduce my climate footprint?

Eating less red meat and dairy tends to have the biggest impact on most people in wealthy countries. You can simply eat less of the foods with the largest climate footprint, such as beef, lamb and cheese. Plant-based foods such as beans, beans, grains, and soy are generally the most climate-friendly options of all.

How will changing my diet help the planet?

A number of studies have shown that people who currently eat a meat-based diet, including most of the population in the United States and Europe, can cut their food footprint by a third or more by switching to a vegetarian diet. Cutting out dairy will reduce these emissions even more. If you can’t drastically change your diet. Act gradually. Simply eating less meat and dairy and more plants can already reduce emissions. 

Keep in mind that food consumption is often only a small fraction of a person’s total carbon footprint, and how you drive, fly and use energy at home must also be considered. But dietary changes are often one of the quickest ways to ease your impact on the planet.

But I’m alone, how can I influence something?

This is true. One person can do little to help the global climate problem. This is indeed a huge problem that requires massive action and policy changes to address. And food isn’t even the biggest contributor to global warming — much of it is caused by the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, transportation, and industry. On the other hand, if a lot of people collectively make changes to their daily diet, that’s great. 

Scientists warn that we need to reduce the impact of agriculture on the climate in the coming years if we are to control global warming, especially as the world’s population continues to grow. For this to happen, farmers will need to find ways to cut their emissions and become much more efficient, growing more food on less land to limit deforestation. But experts also say it would make a big difference if the world’s heaviest meat-eaters reduced their appetites even moderately, helping to free up the land to feed everyone else.

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