In the transition to a sustainable future, a lot of the attention goes to energy, and then to transport. Food isn’t quite so high profile, but to secure a stable climate for ourselves and future generations, the sustainable food transition is just as important as an energy transition. Meat consumption in particular is a major contributor to climate change emissions, and a driver of deforestation. Dairy products have a high ecological footprint too, using a lot of land, water, and releasing a lot of greenhouse gases. These are systemic problems, deeply embedded in traditional farming models and cultural eating patterns. Our personal choices won’t be enough on their own, but they are certainly a place to start.
A study in the Global Environmental Change journal outlined the difference our diets can make earlier this year. They compared a range of diets across several countries. The figures are different for each country, so if you are not in the United States, consider this illustrative.
The letters LUC in the key stand for Land Use Change, and it calculates the emissions from transforming the landscape for agriculture. It doesn’t feature highly in this graph, but a comparison with Brazil’s food footprint makes the point. Note the inclusion of the ‘low food chain’ on the left. That replaces meat and dairy with edible insects and shellfish.
Some observations on the food choices we might want to consider:
- As the graph shows, cutting out red meat is the easiest way to make a serious dent in your food emissions. In some countries this halved food emissions at a stroke. Most of us could live without beef and barely notice the difference. Have a steak on your birthday and roast beef at Christmas if you like, and it’ll be all the more special.
- Here’s an interesting one – cutting out red meat has a lower impact on the planet than the traditional vegetarian diet, which makes up the protein with increased dairy and egg consumption. That’s because poultry and fish are relatively low impact, and dairy is very high. If you’ve been considering going vegetarian for the climate, you might want to consider cutting beef and dairy instead.
- Pescetarians, in this study, have a more environmentally friendly diet than vegetarians. This is, again, due to the relative impact of fish vs dairy. If going veggie feels like a big step, consider this an option too.
- For a lot of people – especially in school catering or work canteens – a meat-free day is a starting point. Even this regularly proves controversial, but it’s a step worth taking. (Do the default veg approach to make sure angry meat-eaters don’t ruin it for everyone.)
- In terms of environmental impact, vegans win, with the low food chain insect-eaters close behind. It’s also the only diet that solves the animal welfare issues around dairy and eggs. It’s easier than ever to be vegan, certainly in Britain.