How Your Food Choices Affect the Climate

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I frequently try to find ways to reduce my carbon footprint, and as a hamburger-lover, I tried to ignore the impact of my diet for a long time. Eventually, however, it seemed like the next step was to really understand the impact of the food I was eating. I knew meat had a bad reputation, but did that apply to all types? And what about the impact of other foods like cheese or even vegetables? To answer these questions, I sought a better understanding of how our food system contributes to climate change across the board. What I found is changing the way I think about my meal choices to lessen my own environmental impact.

A body of research demonstrates how all meat production takes a toll on the environment, but beef and lamb stand out as the worst offenders. Beef production requires 28 times more land than poultry and pork, 11 times more water, and results in five-times more climate-warming emissions. Beef and lamb contribute higher emissions because of the much higher levels of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, feed, fuel and other inputs that these animals require to raise, compared to other animals. These livestock also contribute large amounts of methane gas as a byproduct of digestion. To expand on that last point, cows and sheep produce methane gas when they digest their food (because they are ruminants), which is a greenhouse gas with twenty times the heat trapping capability of carbon dioxide. Pork is pretty guilty as well. Pigs, when measured pound for pound, produce more polluting manure than any other farm animal.   

But meat isn’t the only offender. The infograph below illustrates how cheese and farmed salmon are next in line for high-emission foods. Cheese, because of its obvious relation to cows, has high emissions, which is compounded when considering items like imported cheeses, which accumulate emissions from the travel it takes to get to your grocery store. Soft cheeses (like cottage cheese) are less carbon intensive because they take less milk to produce than hard cheeses. Farmed salmon generates emissions from the feed given to the fish in the production phase, but it’s also high because of all the waste that consumers generate – by throwing away a lot of the fish they buy. A lot more salmon ends up being produced for every pound eaten in the U.S.  

Food and Climate
The infographic also shows that veggies are almost universally the best food for the environment, since they take far less energy to produce. This chart from the Environmental Working Group, along with resources from EWG’s Meat Eater Guide to Climate Change and Health, provide more information on how different foods impact our environment.

Once I learned this information, and saw the impact that consuming meat (particularly red meat) has on the environment, I decided to try and make a few lifestyle changes – ones that mixed my love for burgers with my love for the environment. I did not go completely vegetarian but instead tried to be more aware of what I was eating and make adjustments according to a heightened environmental awareness.  Here are a few tips that worked for me:

Eat less red meat: Red meat is by far the dirtiest meat on the market so try and avoid it. You don’t necessarily need to cut meat out of your diet entirely—just try to eat less of it.   

Eat more plants and less animal products overall: Vegetables and fruit release fewer emissions than any animal products, so I try to make changes that decrease the dairy and meat I eat, in favor of plants. 

Buy local and eat seasonally: Buying local reduces the energy used to ship foods.  If it says, “Product of Argentina” on it, it probably took a car and train and a plane to get it from the farm to your hand. And, if the food you eat is in season, it has more likelihood of being local and supporting local farmers. 

Avoid processed and packaged food: Processed and packaged food take an extraordinary amount of energy to make, so it is best to avoid them as much as possible.  

Try to reduce food waste: By eating all of our food, we use our food to its maximum efficiency and aren’t consuming as much!  

Featured Photo Credit: Morgan Walker/NPR

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