How Your Diet Can Change Climate Change

By Sara Bernate Angulo, BSPH in Nutrition

For decades, climate change has urged humankind to take action. And the day-to-day individual – the you and the me – have responded by doing what little we can. We’ve developed habits. We’ve learned to reuse, reduce, and recycle; to compost; to turn off home appliances when not in use; and to turn off the faucet while actively brushing our teeth or scrubbing the dishes.

Some of us have even changed our diets. Many cite the environment as a reason for their vegetarianism or veganism. Animal agriculture is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, drastically more so than plant agriculture, due to increasing demands at every step of the production and distribution chain. This includes growing livestock populations; animal production facilities and mass production of machinery; land deforestation, degradation, and desertification; production of grain and fertilizer for animal feed; water storage, use, and disposal; and energy expenditure.

Research indicates that food choice is an underestimated avenue through which individuals can combat climate change. One study asked over 1000 individuals to estimate the energy consumption or GHG emissions associated with the production and transportation of 19 foods and the one-hour use of 18 appliances. Results revealed that consumers underestimated the energy consumed and GHG emissions for both foods and appliances, but significantly more so for foods.

Unsurprisingly so, as an electric bill is more conceptually tangible than the visual presentation of food. For example, which of the following contributes the least energy and GHG emissions: vegetables, pork, or beef? To most, the answer might be obvious. Vegetables. What about between pork or beef? That one might not be as obvious. Beef and lamb production are the top contributors to global greenhouse emissions from food production. So while vegetarians may make the conscious, environmentally-driven decision to eat a vegetable sandwich as required by their diet, people who eat meat may underestimate how their choice between a beef sandwich and a chicken sandwich can impact their carbon footprint.

Now, I get what you’re thinking. It’s just one sandwich. One sandwich for one sole person. But when you look beyond your own consumption, you’ll find that just like you, millions of people are consuming their one individual sandwich. In the UK, the British Sandwich & Food to Go Association reports that over 11.5 billion sandwiches are consumed annually.  Our individual decision of what type of sandwich to eat may seem insignificant until you consider the power of our collective actions. And while you do not hold control over the decisions of others, making yours as environmentally friendly as possible (while still true to your health needs and within your physical and financial means) is the right first step to a brighter future.

Of course, the carbon consequences of a sandwich are not limited to whether it contains meat or not. A research study dedicated to investigating the environmental impact of sandwiches emphasizes that their carbon footprint is caused by the production and maintenance of a sandwich, which includes harvest of ingredients, processing, transportation, storage, and waste disposal. This is to say that the power in your food choices ranges from individual items to whole diets.

To combat the underestimation of our food’s environmental impact and thus aid consumers’ understanding of their food choices, researchers have explored the use of carbon food labels. These studies reveal that when presented with such labels, consumers reduce their consumption of food items with higher energy use and GHG emissions. But until carbon food labels are the norm, and while we demand improvements to the food production chain at a governmental and corporation level, research has provided insight into what more we can do as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint through food. Small households consisting of one or two people should lower their purchase and consumption of bulk items, which decreases demand for excess food and thus food waste. Reducing the intake of processed food and drinks with high caloric content and low nutritional intake leads to “as much, if not more, carbon emission reduction than changing diets.” Additionally, shifting toward small-scale at-home agriculture and food preparation eliminates various steps in the production and distribution chain.

The most environmentally conscious conviction we can have is that our small actions have ripple effects. And the most deliberate action we can take is to eat, and to enjoy what we eat, while doing what we can to reduce our carbon footprint with the knowledge and education with which we are equipped.

Peer-edited by Leslie Torres, Bachelors of Biology with a biopharmaceutical concentration

Picture credit: Pixabay

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