The earth is impacted by many of our day-to-day activities. One area where that is especially true is our diets. Large-scale agriculture is responsible for massive amounts of land and water use and greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. But, where there is a large environmental impact, there is a large potential for change. Adjusting your diet is one of the simplest steps you can take to decrease your personal environmental footprint. Compared to other greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive industries like fossil fuels, energy production and consumption, our diet is where we as individuals have the biggest opportunity to drive impact.
How Does Food Impact the Environment?
For most of us, it is a long and intensive process to get food from the farm to our plate. It may begin with a seed that grows into a crop that is fed to an animal that is raised and slaughtered, processed and packaged, transported and stocked, purchased and transported again to our homes, and, eventually, to our mouths. Every step in this journey comes with its own environmental impact. An overwhelming scientific consensus points to the fact that these processes, known collectively as agriculture, are draining our planet of its natural resources and spitting back out tons of harmful pollutants.
- Greenhouse gas emissions emitted by the agricultural industry. In the United States, the agriculture sector accounted for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Globally, the five largest meat and dairy corporations combined are responsible for more greenhouse gases than Shell, BP and Exxon, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
- Freshwater usage worldwide is mainly dedicated to agriculture which accounts for 70% of our global usage. In the United States, more than half of all the water used is dedicated to animal agriculture specifically.
- Deforestation is also a major impact resulting from agriculture, with 30% of land around the world currently being used for agriculture. Unfortunately, this often comes at the expense of important habitats and biospheres such as the Amazon rainforest, of which 91% of its destruction can be attributed to land clearing for animal agriculture.
- Biodiversity loss and water pollution due to the excessive amount of nitrogen in fertilizers contributes to soil.
These are just a few of the main ways that the agriculture industry contributes to human impact on our planet. The global food system is a complex web of processes and we can improve efficiency and impact at every stage. To read more about what policymakers and institutions can do you can read our article The Road to a Sustainable Food System. In the meantime, this article focuses on what you can do. As consumers, we are responsible for the environmental impact of each of the foods we purchase for ourselves and the demand that it puts on the agriculture industry. Luckily, there are steps we can take to decrease that impact.
5 Ways to a More Sustainable Diet
1. REDUCE YOUR MEAT CONSUMPTION
The truth is that when it comes to ecological footprint, not all meals are created equal. Certain foods have a much more destructive role in our agriculture systems than others, and number one on that list is meat. A UN report from 2013 estimated that livestock makes up 14.5% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. This number is roughly equivalent to total emissions from all forms of transportation.
Meat also requires the most water for production. Red meat, in particular, takes 2,500 gallons of water per pound. This makes sense when you consider that to raise livestock, there is also the need for feed, meaning that even more resources are required to grow the food that animals eat. In fact, 30% of all crops that are grown are fed to livestock.
Because meat has such a significant impact on the environment, becoming vegan or vegetarian is one of the largest steps individuals can take to reduce their personal impact. “Vegan” to some is an immediate turn-off because of the intense restriction of food it implies. But it is important to remember that even slight changes can make a difference. Why not try:
- Making certain days of the week vegetarian or vegan days. The Economist reports that going vegan for 2/3 of your meals can cut food-related carbon emissions by 60%.
- Substituting your favorite meat dishes with a plant-based alternative. Plant-based meat sales in the last year have increased by nearly 30%. Impossible and Beyond Meat are two of the largest brands that boast a whole range of imitation meat products.
- Using meat-flavored seasonings on vegetables and grains to shift the focus of the meal while still having the taste of meat.
- Choosing less impactful meat types. Just like all food is not equally as impactful, different types of meat are more sustainable than others. According to a study published in 2018, beef and lamb rank the worst in terms of greenhouse gas emissions while, chicken has a lower impact than most other meats.
2. REDUCE YOUR DAIRY CONSUMPTION
Dairy is another food category that disproportionately affects the environment. In addition to the greenhouse gas impacts surrounding feed, transportation and production, dairy cows naturally emit methane into the atmosphere, a gas with an even more potent effect on climate change than CO2.
The study mentioned above, showing the relative greenhouse gas emission of different types of food, ranks cheese as one of the highest emitters, above both chicken and pork and higher than any other dairy product. The reason for this is because it takes a large amount of milk to make cheese. Intensification means more work goes into the creation of the final product.
Similar to meat, plant-based substitutes for dairy products, particularly plant-based milks, have become more popular than ever. Now it is an expectation for coffee places to have an array of milk options like oat, almond, soy and coconut milk. Switching to these types of milks is a good start to reduce your dairy intake and the environmental footprint associated with it.
Just as you are conscious of your switch toward alternative products, it is important to consider the impacts of your plant-based options as well. For example, while almond milk may be associated with less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional dairy, almond farming is known to require massive quantities of water. In other words, even your plant-based alternatives still have an impact, and it is important to be mindful of the differences between your new options.
3. BUY LOCAL
If you plan to reduce your meat and dairy consumption, you may need to increase your intake of fresh produce. That goes hand in hand with step three which is to buy local.
From an environmental standpoint, “farm to table” is far preferred over the lengthier: fertilizer to farm to factory to truck to facility to store to car to home. Why? Because cutting down on the steps between the growth of your food and dinner means cutting down on the resources and waste associated with each step. By seeking out ways to locally source your groceries, you can eliminate the massive environmental footprint attached to them. There are a few different ways to buy local….
- Farmers Markets: The food has been grown somewhere close to you, eliminating large portions of transportation. Local farms are often less likely to use harmful pesticides. Local farms typically participate in polyculture, the practice of growing and harvesting a variety of produce that is far more sustainable than the preferred monoculture method of factory farming
- CSA shares: CSA or community-supported agriculture is the practice by which farms allow people to buy shares of their harvest beforehand. Consumers pay an agreed upon price and then receive their portion of freshly picked vegetables, generally every week.
- Grow it yourself! If you live in a home with an outdoor space, a personal garden can be a good way to get delicious fresh produce and a fun new hobby. For those in apartment style or city living, small nursery plants like herbs, tomatoes and bell peppers are able to be grown indoors.
4. MEAL PLAN
According to estimates from the USDA, 30-40% of the entire food supply goes to waste in the United States. That means that tons of energy and resources are going into food products that are never even eaten and often wind up sitting in landfills. To make sure you are not contributing to the food waste problem, a good first step is consciously purchasing only what you truly need. One of the easiest ways to do this is through meal planning.
Meal planning is the simple step of setting aside time to decide before the week (or whatever period you choose) what you will be eating. Planning out what you are going to consume for a set period allows you to shop with purpose. This often ends up meaning that you are buying less food and throwing less away. The elimination of waste also translates to saving money, making meal planning a sustainable choice in more ways than one!
As mentioned above, food waste is a major issue. According to the environmental protection agency, food accounts for more waste in landfills than anything else. Food waste also releases methane into the atmosphere. So, while meal planning is a good first step in reducing waste, some food waste cannot be avoided.
When you have food waste, the most sustainable way to deal with it may be through composting, which returns the waste to the environment. It can also improve soils, reduce methane emissions and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.
You can check to see if you have a community composting program in the form of a local compost drop-off center or even curbside pick-up, depending on where you live. Otherwise, there is a lot of easily accessible information on composting at home. The EPA website includes tips on both indoor and outdoor DIY composting.
Health Benefits of Eating Sustainably
If you need further convincing to start eating green, you can consider evidence that these diet and lifestyle changes may be just as healthy for you as they are for the planet.
A growing body of evidence has shown how decreasing your consumption of red and processed meats can also lower risks of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Choices to cut back on dairy consumption mean reducing levels of saturated fat in your diet. Buying locally sourced foods often means fewer pesticides have been used for growth and preservation purposes.
If you care about the environment, diet changes are a simple way to make your lifestyle more sustainable in more ways than one. Don’t be afraid to start small. When it comes to saving the earth, the task may seem massive but, changes to the way we consume are the first push to alter the way we produce, reducing our impact and producing a healthier relationship with our ecosystem.
Articles in the Save the Earth series:
- What contributes to climate change and how to Save the Earth
- Save the Earth II: Divest Fossil Fuels
- Save the Earth III: Switch to Renewable Energy
- Save the Earth IV: Make Your Diet Sustainable