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Can your dinner actually save the world?

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Art by Morgan Eun

Melting ice caps, starving polar bears, and extreme weather are all poster children of climate change; the looming concern troubling the minds of scientists and people everywhere. But the food on your dinner plate? Climate change and your next meal don’t seem to go hand in hand. The truth is, food production makes up over a third of all man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide — the nasty things that are causing starving polar bears, hurricanes, and rising sea levels. The food system, including tractors, transport, packing materials, and your fridge, has severe impacts on its escalation. Your next meal is full of hidden consequences for the future of our planet. What can you do about it? Can your dinner actually save the world?

The Facts

We currently live in a world where our passion for meat means that we globally consume around 350 million tons of meat each year. The thing is, meat requires more water, energy, and land to produce than any other food source. According to the New York Times article Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered, meat and dairy products (especially from cows) account for around 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases each year. That’s almost the same amount of greenhouse gases emitted from cars, trucks, airplanes, and ships across the world combined.

Image by Flash Dantz via Unplash

The most effective way of fighting this problem is to introduce a plant-based diet into the widely practiced meat-based diet we hold today. As stated before, meat requires water to produce. One pound of beef requires 2,000 to 8,000 gallons of water to produce. If we eliminated animal products from our diets, we would be saving at least 50% of our water use globally. Reducing our meat intake would also significantly reduce our carbon footprint.

Although going vegan is a great choice of action, it isn’t your only option to eat sustainably. Some experts have argued that cutting out meat completely is not necessary for a human-healthy and planet-healthy diet. It is also notable to point out that animal agriculture is the main livelihood of more than 1.3 billion people worldwide, and its products provide the needed nutrition that is unavailable for people in other sources. But in some countries, people over-consume the amount of needed protein per day. Over-consumption of meat is not only detrimental to the planet, but it also comes with a cost to human health. Unfortunately, the demand for animal products is only growing. In wealthy countries like America, where there is more flexibility to choose what food you’d like to eat, consuming less meat and dairy will have the largest impact on climate change.

The book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming outlines many solutions to reduce our impacts, and places a planet-rich diet as the 4th most efficient solution (with refrigeration, onshore wind turbines, and reduced food waste placing 1st, 2nd, and 3rd). The book mentions the term “reducetarianism,” something that stuck with me as I researched food and climate change. Reducetarianism focuses on reducing or cutting down your consumption of meat, fish, dairy, and eggs instead of limiting them completely. Drawdown states that we should “promote” reducetarianism to keep meat as something eaten occasionally instead of as a meal staple.

So, how can I eat sustainably?

Learning about a sustainable diet is one thing, but knowing how to do it, and what to eat, is another. Eating sustainably can vary with different diets (going vegan is the best diet for the planet), but here are five things to look out for when eating sustainably.

Art by Scott Warman via Unsplash

1. Prioritize Plants

As frequently mentioned throughout the article, mainly eating plants is the best thing you can do for the planet. You can get your protein from things like legumes (think beans and lentils), quinoa, and soy products like tofu and edamame. Overall, if you can’t — or just don’t want to — entirely remove meat from your diet, you should aim to stay away from beef and lamb, the worst meats for the planet.

2. Seasonal Stars

When possible, try to eat what’s in season. Not only does it taste better and is more nutritious, but seasonal produce also doesn’t travel as far because it is seasonal to your area and is more likely to use less artificial factors like heating, fertilizers, and lighting in its production.

3. Mindful Eating

Remembering to think about where your food came from and tuning into your body’s hunger signals can actually help you eat sustainably. Shockingly, a third of food raised or prepared is never eaten despite the millions of hungry people worldwide. Wasted food wastes resources and creates pollution and greenhouse gases. In America, we waste 30-40 percent of our food, and embarrassingly, I am a perpetrator as well. Taking only the food you will eat will help with climate change.

4. Vital Variety

Your parents were right — trying new foods is good. It’s also good for the planet. 75% of the world’s food supply comes from 12 plants and 5 animal species which are detrimental to nature. The WWF and Knorr collaborated to put together a report of