Updated: Oct 19, 2021
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?
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.
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.
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 50 foods that will reduce the environmental impact of food supply.
5. Responsible Seafood
Wild fish have a relatively small carbon footprint and are more climate-friendly protein choices than other meats. But certain species are overfished and cultivated in non-eco-friendly ways. Try to make sure your seafood isn’t one of those creatures.
To conclude this article, I decided to put my knowledge and passion for sustainable eating (and stopping climate change) to the test. For one week, I followed the EAT-Lancet Commission “planetary health diet” which roughly consists of about 34% of daily calories coming from starchy food (ex. potatoes and rice), 23% percent from legumes, 18% from fats, and the rest split between fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, and sugary foods.
The first couple of days, I set off with a bang. Breakfasts of avocado toast and vegetable sandwiches for lunch became daily staples, and my love for quinoa chips became an excuse for much-needed protein (although, please do not rely on quinoa chips for protein). I enjoyed pasta salads, hummus, pita, salmon, and a variety of fruits and vegetables.
On Day 3, I was faced with my first challenge- hamburger meat. I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I could eat something else, so I dug in the freezer and found a veggie burger I could enjoy instead. A couple of days later, I was pleasantly surprised that my whole family, including my meat-loving younger brother, enjoyed these bean-based veggie burgers with me. This plant-based source of protein is now something we discovered that we all enjoy and will be eating again in the future.
At the end of the week, I realized that as a whole, this “diet” that I followed wasn’t too different from what I regularly eat on a day-to-day basis. I also found that making sure that what I ate aligned with the percentages stated in the “planetary health diet” was tedious and would be too much work to do as a daily habit. Although it is a great way to make sure you align with a sustainable food lifestyle, I prefer just staying conscious of what I put on my plate and how that affects a sustainable food lifestyle.
Having a plant-rich diet is one of the few powerful solutions for climate change that lies in the hands of the individual instead of large corporations and governments. It’s our responsibility to do as much as we can to save our planet and keep it thriving for generations to come. Sustainable eating is a necessary step to take in order to reverse global warming. Take it upon yourself to think about how you can make a change. Every little bit counts. Every small change makes a difference. And if we all work together, your dinner can save the world.
EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data.
“10 Tips to Eat More Sustainably.” WWF, www.wwf.org.uk/what-can-i-do/10-tips-help-you-eat-more-sustainably.
“The Case for Plant Based.” UCLA Sustainability, www.sustain.ucla.edu/food-systems/the-case-for-plant-based/.
“Eating Your Way to Net Zero: How to Eat to Save the Planet.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/how-to-eat-environmentally-friendly-and-stop-global-warming.
“Food Waste FAQs.” USDA, www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs#:~:text=In the United States, food,percent of the food supply.
Hawken, Paul. Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Langara College, 2019.
McGrane, Kelli. “13 Nearly Complete Protein Sources for Vegetarians and Vegans.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 21 Apr. 2020, www.healthline.com/nutrition/complete-protein-for-vegans#2.-Tofu,-tempeh,-and-edamame.
Moskin, Julia, et al. “Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2019, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/30/dining/climate-change-food-eating-habits.html?mtrref=undefined&gwh=36BB6649CCCD648BD94097EA31063D1B&gwt=pay&assetType=PAYWALL.
“Moving towards Sustainability: The Livestock Sector and the World Bank.” World Bank, www.worldbank.org/en/topic/agriculture/brief/moving-towards-sustainability-the-livestock-sector-and-the-world-bank.
“Plate and the Planet.” The Nutrition Source, 7 July 2021, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sustainability/plate-and-planet/.
“5 Tips for Sustainable Eating.” The Nutrition Source, 20 Nov. 2017, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2015/06/17/5-tips-for-sustainable-eating/.
Tdus. “Why Is One-Third of Our Food Wasted Worldwide?” UC Davis, 5 Mar. 2021, www.ucdavis.edu/food/news/why-is-one-third-of-food-wasted-worldwide#:~:text=Nearly one-third of all,the world is never eaten.&text=Growing food also uses resources,we're wasting those resources.
Vetter, David. “Got Beef? Here's What Your Hamburger Is Doing To The Climate.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 5 Oct. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/davidrvetter/2020/10/05/got-beef-heres-what-your-hamburger-is-doing-to-the-climate/?sh=3d5170365206.
Vetter, David. “How Much Does Our Food Contribute To Global Warming? New Research Reveals All.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 10 Mar. 2021, www.forbes.com/sites/davidrvetter/2021/03/10/how-much-does-our-food-contribute-to-global-warming-new-research-reveals-all/?sh=419ac91c27d7.