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Changing our diets can help the planet, but how far do we need to go?

Updated: Sep 22, 2023



The current system of food production and consumption worldwide is responsible for more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions, this is more than global emissions from vehicles. More than 50% of the greenhouse gasses emitted during food production are due to industrial meat and dairy farming, an agricultural sector that relies heavily on fossil fuels, and feedstock such as soy, which is often grown on land cleared of forest and jungle for the sole purpose of growing mono-crops, requiring a huge amount of water (Stylianou, K.S., 2021).


These agricultural practices and greenhouse gas emitting foods drive climate change, but what effect does this have on food production itself?


Climate change as a result is diminishing our ability to produce food in a vicious circle of degradation. Rising temperatures, more frequent droughts and wildfires result in crop failures and reduced food availability to those most vulnerable to and least responsible for climate change.


A changing environment is having an impact on the nutrients we receive from the food we eat too. It turns out that rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere lower the micro and macro nutrient content of our foods, including protein, iron zinc and various vitamins in the fruit, vegetables and grains that we eat (IPCC., 2021).


So what can be done to reduce the impact of food on climate change?


The single most important change that can be made is eating less red meat, and more vegetables, legumes and grains, especially locally grown and seasonally produced! It is widely acknowledged that moving to a vegan or vegetarian diet is the largest impact an individual can have on their carbon footprint (Scarborough, P., 2014).


We can reduce wastage, this is a really important area to work on worldwide. Around 17% of all food is wasted each year, this equates to wasted greenhouse gas production almost as much as the US…every year.


Since ¾ of the world's food comes from 12 plant and 5 animal species (FAO., 1999), we could do with diversifying our crops too, this will increase the resilience of our food crops to disease, drought and other factors resulting from climate change as well as reducing the damaging impacts that monoculture crops have on the environment such as reduced soil quality.


While we know how to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with our food with relatively simple to implement changes, the change is slow. Food choices are highly personal and deeply connected to our culture, religion, and economic circumstances.

The most impact would likely be if everyone globally became a vegan, eating vegetables grown in their garden or window sill right? But it’s not feasible. However, what is important for people to understand is that small changes have big impacts.


Some people are resistant to change in their diet for numerous reasons, this can be daunting, especially if they suddenly find themselves preparing foods that they have never eaten before to satisfy the conditions of their new planet friendly diet.


The good news is that even for the most ardent meat eaters reducing their carbon footprint is well within their reach with only minimal and manageable changes every week. Research has shown that beef consumption is the most environmentally damaging widely held food habit. A study showed that if someone eating beef at least once a day replaces the beef in their meal with another type of meat, such as chicken or turkey, they would reduce their food associated greenhouse gas emissions by 48% and their water scarcity footprint by 30% (Rose, D., et al. 2021).


This is a much more achievable goal for many heavy meat eaters than a strict meat free diet.





References

Donald Rose, Amelia M Willits-Smith, Martin C Heller, Single-item substitutions can substantially reduce the carbon and water scarcity footprints of US diets, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 115, Issue 2, Pages 378–387 (2022).

FAO. Women: users, preservers and managers of agrobiodiversity (2021).


Scarborough, P., Appleby, P.N., Mizdrak, A. et al. Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change 125, 179–192 (2014)

Stylianou, K.S., Fulgoni, V.L. & Jolliet, O. Small targeted dietary changes can yield substantial gains for human health and the environment. Nat Food 2, 616–627 (2021).


IPCC. Sixth assessment report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2021).

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