Steps to Fight Climate Change with the Food You Eat

by James Saracini

5/14/19

Humans are to blame for the current pace of climate change, so, it falls to us to do something about it. Thankfully, there’s something very simple you can do every day to make a difference:

By making small changes to your diet, you can significantly decrease your impact on our climate.

Our food system is responsible for about one-quarter of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that humans pour into the atmosphere each year. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases like methane are primarily what cause climate change. And while it’s very important for the big players — i.e. the food companies who grow, process and distribute our food — to do their share, there is also a very real and important impact we, as individuals, can have on global emissions if we all eat a little differently.

Small Changes, Big Climate Impact

The carbon footprint of the food you eat is a major component of your overall “foodprint” — the collective impact your food choices have on the environment, animals and people. Luckily, you don’t have to completely overhaul the way you eat. Because there are significant differences in the climate impact of the foods you already buy, it’s sometimes as easy as swapping one favorite food for another. Plus, since there’s a difference in climate impact between the methods used by industrial food companies and those used by more sustainable producers, you can still enjoy your favorite foods if you choose your ingredients wisely.

Terms to Know
Carbon Footprint
The total amount of greenhouse gases directly and indirectly produced to support human activity. Usually expressed in equivalent tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Here are the steps every climate-conscious eater should take to reduce their foodprint.

1. Cut Your Carbon Footprint by Eating Less Meat — but Better Meat

The production of meat and dairy emits significantly more greenhouse gas (GHG) than does the growing of plants. Raising livestock is responsible for 14.5 percent of all human-caused GHG emissions.

And different meats have different carbon footprints. Raising cows for beef accounts for about 65 percent of the livestock sector’s emissions. That means that for the meat-lovers among us, just cutting back on red meat is a simple way to lessen your climate impact.

But there’s good news here: sustainably-produced beef can have a much lower carbon footprint than the “conventional” option. Raising cows in a pasture-based system does an excellent job of offsetting the animals own GHG emissions by locking carbon into the soil, not using GHG-producing synthetic fertilizers and effectively breaking down manure.

Find Strategies and Recipes for cooking with less but better meat

2. Fight Global Deforestation with Your Food Purchases

Global deforestation — the clearcutting of trees and other plants that fill rainforests in places like the Amazon — is a serious threat to our climate’s health. These forests hold onto huge amounts of carbon, and when they are cut down, that carbon is released into the atmosphere. The reason behind all this destruction? In part, food. It’s estimated that agriculture is responsible for 75 percent of global deforestation. Today, huge swaths of forest are being cleared to raise cattle; grow soy to feed livestock; and produce cheap palm oil and other commodities.

It’s hard to know if the beef you’re eating came from cows raised on former Rainforest land. While the vast majority of beef consumed in the US comes from US producers, some large companies still managed to import nearly 141 million pounds of beef from Brazil in 2018. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, progress has been made in South America on halting deforestation for beef production but the international companies who do import beef from the Amazon still aren’t doing enough. And since it’s often impossible to know where your beef comes from, it’s another reason to eat less meat and meat that’s produced more sustainably (and locally) when you do.

You can do your part to reduce deforestation by avoiding products containing palm oil (which is found in many processed products on supermarket shelves) or other global commodities like chocolate and coffee. Support brands that are committed to protecting forests. Buy products that have been certified by the Rainforest Alliance. Learn more about conflict palm oil and keep checking in with the Rainforest Action Network to see which brands aren’t doing their share to protect rainforests and the peoples and animals who live and work in them.

Use our Food Label Guide to find labels you can trust

3. Eat Organic to Fight Climate Change

As part of the industrialized system of raising crops in the US, farmers use synthetically-produced fertilizers and pesticides to keep their annual yields high enough to turn a profit. Synthetic fertilizers and many pesticides have a big carbon footprint. They’re made from petroleum and each step of their manufacture releases more and more greenhouse gases (GHGs).

To make sure your food wasn’t grown using these methods, buy food that has been certified USDA Organic. Organic standards exclude the use of synthetic fertilizers and most pesticides and, as a result, there’s strong evidence that these methods can combat the causes of climate change. A carefully controlled study by the Rodale Institute, conducted in comparison fields, illustrates the potential and promise of regenerative, organic agriculture.

Learn the benefits of buying organic produce

4. Cut Your Food Waste to Cut Your Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Food waste is a contributor to climate change for two reasons. First: food that goes to landfill emits methane as it decomposes — and methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases there is. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, landfills are responsible for 34 percent of all methane emissions in this country. So, when you waste food and it ends up in the landiull, you’re part of the problem.

Secondly: wasted food is a waste of the resources and processes that it took to make food that isn’t even being eaten. We’ve discussed above how food production contributes to climate change. If you buy more than you need or use, you waste the valuable resources it took to produce the food, as well as the GHGs emitted as part of those processes.

Fortunately, there’s an opportunity here to make a big change, because it’s estimated that consumers are the cause of 40 to 50 percent of all food waste. So, by cutting our personal food waste, we can make a big dent in our food system’s effect on climate change.

Find easy, effective strategies for reducing the amount of food you waste

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