Food and The Planet: Why What You Eat Can Make A Difference

Image above adapted from Project Drawdown. See full image here. This article is part of our series of articles on sustainable food and eating.

Climate change has arrived and it’s not pretty. With the dramatic early effects now on display for all to see, the level of attention to the topic has skyrocketed. Solutions are being sought across all sectors, including within the food ecosystem. It makes sense too, given food systems account for an estimated one-quarter to one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. People are logically asking themselves - what can I do to help? With the prevalence of greenwashing, misinformation, and seemingly contradictory data on the rise it’s helpful to arm oneself with some basic facts and concepts.

Your food choices do matter. 

Project Drawdown estimates 25-30% of the total emissions reductions needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change can come from individual and household actions (the other 70-75% being driven by decisions from governments, businesses, utilities, and other entities). Reducing food waste and eating a plant rich diet earn the number 1 and 2 spots on their list of high impact climate actions individuals can take. That’s ahead of things like putting solar panels on your roof, using public transit, or recycling. Food ain’t as sexy as some of these other topics, so it doesn’t get nearly as much love and attention, but before you go buy an electric bike perhaps consider just keeping more food out of the bin.

It’s mostly about what you eat, not where it comes from.

“Eat local” is common advice and there are many compelling reasons to do so, but from a climate impact perspective where your food comes from doesn’t have nearly as much impact as what you eat. Transportation accounts for less than 10% of the carbon footprint of most foods, whereas eating 1 lb of beef causes over 60 times more emissions than eating the same amount of peas. Beef is a “super-emitter” and other meat and dairy products generally are more carbon intensive than plant based foods. It’s not about abstinence either, we’ve been consuming these foods for millennia and most of us will likely continue to do so, but eating a bit less meat and dairy and a bit more plant-based food is a good way to be more eco-friendly (and healthy too!).

Waste-not, want-not for the win.

One of the most straightforward and impactful ways to decarbonize your diet is simply to throw out less food. Food that’s wasted accounts for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. About a third of all food produced is never eaten and in developed countries households are by far the biggest culprits, accounting for around half of all food waste. Wasting less food is relatively low effort, saves you money, and is simply the right thing to do considering the number of people in the world who don’t have enough. Plus, it’s fun to find creative ways to use up food that would otherwise go to waste.

A bit of planning goes a long way.

Planning what you’ll eat at home in advance of shopping is still one of the most surefire ways to ensure you’re eating in a climate-conscious manner. This is mainly because it’s been shown to be the most effective technique to minimize food waste. By planning some or all of your home-cooked meals in advance you’re forced to make a shopping list, preventing you from making impulse purchases or simply buying items you won’t end up using. It also provides an opportunity to consider the entirety of the week’s cooking at once, allowing you to opt for a more balanced overall menu and perhaps even include a vegetarian meal or two. It’s reported only about 1/3rd of individuals currently do so, and fewer than 60% of people even make a shopping list. Plus, some advance planning has been shown to improve diet quality, save money, and even net time savings. This is because the time invested in the planning is returned in multiples throughout the week because you’re not forced to figure out what to eat during a busy weekday, or worse still - realize you don’t actually have what you need and run to the grocery store yet again.

In conclusion.

It’s likely we’ll see increased attention on the relationship between food systems and climate change, including how personal choices factor in, and that’s a good thing. Improving the climate footprint of food systems, particularly by reducing food waste throughout the entire supply chain, is a relatively low-hanging fruit. It’s an initiative that has many non-climate benefits as well (e.g., improved diets, decreased costs, reduced world hunger, and a slew of non-climate related environmental benefits such as reduced water consumption, improved soil health, and biodiversity preservation, etc.). It is, however, more important than ever to be an informed consumer. There are many things that sound great, but perhaps aren’t as rosy as they’re made out to be. There are just as many seemingly illogical truths that we’ll need to grapple with (yes, it’s probably more eco-friendly to consume that tomato from halfway across the world than the one grown in a greenhouse in your cold-weather country three towns over). But the overall message is increasingly clear - what you put on your plate does make a difference in the fight against climate change.

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