Understanding food’s climate impact: what you need to know

The connection between your diet and climate change

Climate change isn’t just about coal-fired power plants or gas-guzzling cars. The food we eat, how it’s produced, and what we choose to consume can all contribute to our individual carbon footprints.

The carbon footprint of meat and dairy

Meat and dairy are significant contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock accounting for around 14.5 percent of the world’s emissions each year. Cattle (raised for both beef and milk, as well as for inedible outputs like manure) are responsible for the most emissions, representing about 65% of livestock emissions.

For instance, getting 100 grams of protein from beef results in about 50 kilograms of greenhouse gas impact.

Seafood’s environmental footprint

Seafood varies widely in its environmental impact. Wild fish often have a small climate footprint, but overfishing is a concern. Meanwhile, fish farming (aquaculture) can sometimes offer a climate-friendly option.

Getting 100 grams of protein from farmed fish results in about 6 kilograms of greenhouse gas impact.

The impact of dairy and plant-based alternatives

Milk and cheese can also have a significant impact on the climate. In general, milk typically has a smaller climate footprint than chicken, eggs, or pork. However, some types of cheese can have a larger footprint than these meats, due to the large amounts of milk required to make them.

When it comes to milk alternatives, almond, oat, and soy milk all have smaller greenhouse gas footprints than cow’s milk, although each comes with its own environmental considerations.

The role of plant-based diets

Plant-based diets can have the smallest climate footprints. Even partial shifts towards plant-based diets, such as cutting back on meat consumption or adopting a vegetarian or pescatarian diet, can make a significant difference.

Getting 100 grams of protein from peas or nuts results in less than 1 kilogram of greenhouse gas impact.

The reality of food waste

Food waste is another significant contributor to global emissions. EPA data show that food waste is the single most common material landfilled and incinerated in the U.S., comprising 24 and 22 percent of landfilled and combusted municipal solid waste. Cutting down on food waste can be as impactful as shifting diet preferences.

In conclusion

Understanding the environmental impacts of our dietary choices can help us make more informed decisions about what we eat. While the impact of each choice may seem small in isolation, collectively, they can have a significant effect on our planet.


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