Do you feel hopeless about climate change because the problem seems too big for you to have any impact on it?
Well, think again! Simple choices we make every day — especially what we put on our plates — can make a huge difference in reducing the carbon emissions that cause climate change — if we all get on board. In fact, according to researchers at Oregon State University, if Americans ate beans instead of beef, the U.S. could meet its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions goals, even if we did little else and still ate other animal products!
Looking at data on our food system, an astonishing 24-33 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be traced back to food production, distribution, consumption and waste! That puts a lot of climate-saving power in the hands of all of us who eat — and that would be pretty much everybody.
Ben Houlton, at U.C. Davis, studies the GHG emissions of food production, and according to his climate models, a vegan diet reduces your carbon footprint the most, and a Mediterranean diet is second best.
He says, “Our studies are showing that the Mediterranean diet — which is rich in nuts and beans and has a lot of fish, maybe chicken once a week, maybe red meat only once a month — if everyone were to move toward it, it’s the equivalent of taking about a billion or more cars [worth] of pollution out of the planet every year.”
That’s roughly all the cars currently on the road worldwide.
Why would changing our diets from meat-centric to veggie-centric have such a big effect on the climate? It’s mostly because meats have such a huge carbon footprint.
Figures from the Environmental Working Group show that lamb and beef have the highest carbon dioxide equivalent — 39.2 kilos of CO2 per kilogram of lamb and 27 kilos of CO2 per kilogram of beef. This includes all emissions produced on the farm, in the factory, on the road, in the shop, and in your home.
To produce the same emissions as a kilo of lamb, you’d need to drive 91 miles, and for a kilo of beef, 63 miles.
In comparison, a kilo of vegetables produces 2 kilos of CO2-equivalent gases (equal to driving 4.5 miles), a kilo of fruit, 1.1 kilos of CO2 (like driving 2.5 miles), and a kilo of lentils, 0.9 kilo of CO2 (like driving 2 miles). So, you can reduce your carbon footprint significantly just by cutting down on beef and lamb. The carbon footprint of a completely vegetarian diet is about half that of a meat-eater’s diet.
Another issue with meat-eating has to do with the conditions under which most animals are raised, in what are called CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). If you’ve ever driven by one, your nose will tell you they aren’t pleasant places! But besides that, livestock globally emit 18% of all GHGs (more than transportation) and eat one third of global grain.
Furthermore, the toxic byproducts of CAFOs are damaging to the environment and often to the health of people living near them, when the toxins get into the waterways. And then there’s the deforestation that’s occurring because of the desire for ever-more land to raise cattle. At least 70% of the deforestation of the Amazon (the lungs of our planet) is to provide land for cattle ranches.
Besides eating less meat, there are a few other simple things you can do to reduce the carbon emissions you’re personally responsible for. For one, use the stove-top rather than the oven for most of your cooking. A gas oven uses only 6% of its energy to cook (wasting 94%), and an electric oven uses only 12%.
And when you’re shopping, avoid products that use a lot of packaging or buy in bulk to avoid it altogether. Check the label on your processed foods, because a long list of ingredients usually translates to a high carbon footprint. And be aware that frozen foods have the highest carbon footprint, followed by canned foods, then foods packaged in plastic, in glass, and finally cardboard.
Since transportation is responsible for about 11% of the emissions involved in food production, try shopping at your local farmer’s market (we have two in Santa Clarita!) or choose a grocery that offers locally grown produce.
If you miss beef, try an Impossible Burger, coming soon to all Burger Kings, or Carl’s Junior’s Beyond Burger. They really do taste like meat and will help you switch from beef to plant-based protein.
Cher Gilmore is a member of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, lives in Newhall, and owns no stock in either Burger King or Carl’s Junior. “The Greener Side” is a recurring column focusing on environmental issues.