Animal agriculture continues to be the biggest contributor to climate change. The only solution is for more people to go vegan.

Green-house gases drive global warming, which threatens biodiversity, ecosystems, and human health. A significant percentage of these disastrous gases come from human food systems: one-third of the worldwide total. This includes every step of the process – from land clearing to make way for farms to producing (raising and harvesting animals and plants) to processing, packaging, and shipping to the food as waste sitting in a landfill.

However, there are ways to improve many aspects of the process to generate fewer emissions. Your choices cause the improvements. For example, what you decide to eat and how much food you waste can either increase or reduce your contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions.

And it’s not as daunting as it sounds. Researchers from Tulane University even show how you don’t have to alter your diet entirely to make a difference. You can dramatically minimize your carbon footprint by simply substituting particular food items. The findings point to beef as the item with the greatest negative environmental effect.

Study lead author Dr. Diego Rose, a Professor and Director of Nutrition at Tulane University’s School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, told Medical News Today (MNT):

“We wanted to know what was driving these higher impact diets, so we drilled down into the individual diets, looking at each item they ate on a given day. In many cases, we saw that just one item in the diet turned an otherwise average diet into a high-impact diet. This item was typically a beef item, and we noticed that by substituting it for a portion of less impactful animal food – say, chicken – the overall impact of the diet would be much less.

It’s pretty clear from [the] research that people will not make changes if they don’t feel they are able to make changes. This ‘self-efficacy,’ or belief in one’s ability to succeed, is at the core of behavioral change theories. A simple change, especially when you’re not giving up much, is obviously easier to remember and to enact [than] complex changes. Once made, the change reinforces one’s ability to succeed, and a positive feedback loop can be created for additional changes.
They found that replacing beef with turkey will reduce your diet-related emissions by 48{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} and your water scarcity footprint by 30{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63}.”

Dr. Rosalind Faillaize, a lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at UK’s University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, told MNT:

“The analysis shows us that small dietary substitutions – [that is,] swapping beef [for] pork [or] poultry products – can reduce the environmental impact of our diets while maintaining overall diet quality. The authors cite a very important aspect of changing behaviour in their paper: self-efficacy, or the belief in our own ability to perform a behavior, for example, swapping beef for pork at dinner. Small substitutions are often much easier to adopt than whole diet changes [or] overhauls – [for example,] swapping from a meat-based to a strict vegan diet – so we may feel more confident in our ability to do this.”

Substitution of beef with poultry [or] pork is also more likely to draw on the same cooking skills, removing the frequently-faced barrier of not knowing how to prepare [or] cook or incorporate new or different foods in your diet. Once this small substitution has embedded into our diet [or] lifestyle, we can then try another. Ultimately, small substitutions are more likely to become lasting changes, which is the goal when trying to adopt a more sustainable and or healthier diet.

Comparing the climate footprint of different types of food by per gram of protein:

  • Beef and lamb have the most significant impact
  • Plant-based foods have the smallest
  • Pork and chicken are in the middle

Meat and dairy have an outsized impact. Livestock accounts for approximately 14.5{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} of the world’s annual greenhouse gases. That’s nearly the same amount as the emissions from transportation – all the cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes combined.

If all Americans traded their steaks for lentils and tofu, the country would be about halfway to hit Paris Agreement targets! However, it isn’t necessary to cut it out completely, just reduce consumption. For example, you can participate in Meatless Monday or eat vegetarian on weekdays.

According to a World Resources Institute report, if the average American replaced one-third of the beef they eat with poultry, pork, or legumes, their food-related emissions would still drop by around 13{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63}.

How industrial farming contributes to climate change

Starting from the very beginning, large carbon stores get released into the atmosphere when forests are cleared to make room for grazing livestock and planting crops. Deforestation is a severe environmental problem, with acres of trees being cut down daily in some places – for example, the Amazon rainforest. Agricultural expansion is responsible for 70{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} of biodiversity loss. Plus, 94{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} of the animals on the planet are livestock, and 70{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} of the planet’s freshwater is used for farming.

Next, animals like cows, goats, and sheep burp up methane when digesting food. Methane is more potent a planet-warming gas than carbon dioxide. Animal manure is also a significant source of methane, as are rice paddies. In addition, the burning of fossil fuels to operate farm machinery and make fertilizer for plants generates carbon emissions, as does the fossil fuels used to ship the animal- and plant-based food around the globe.

Food waste

When food gets thrown away, whether by farms, stores, or you, it goes to a landfill where it rots, causing greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere. So much food is wasted worldwide that it would be the third-largest emitter after China and the USA if food waste were a country.

Americans alone waste nearly one-third of the food they buy, making food waste the most significant component of the country’s landfills. Rotting food emits methane.

Good earth and your health

The poor quality of the average American diet involving lots of processed and red meat is a significant factor in several preventable diseases. According to a University of California study, much of the $3 trillion Americans spend on health care annually is allocated to illnesses caused by poor diets.

The study authors wrote:

“Food has a tremendous impact on the environment. That means that there is enormous potential for our food choices to have positive effects on our environment as well on our health and our health care costs.”


Environmental impact label for food

If lots of people made changes to their diets collectively, it would be a noticeable improvement on so many fronts. But, perhaps, it would help if food products come with labels scoring their environmental impact – as it does for nutritional information. For that to happen, governments may have to intervene.

Dr. Rose explained:

“This is a relatively new field, which lags quite a bit behind nutrition labeling. That said, there are new tools that are constantly being developed. For example, in France, they are developing Eco-Score, a front-of-package labeling tool that assesses [the] overall environmental impact of food. There are some apps that can provide information on this as well, for example, GREENCHOICE. But the overall availability of resources on this front is pretty thin. So we’re in the process of developing something ourselves.”

Governments need to prioritize research in this area, specifically the life cycle assessments of food products that are at the root of this work. They also need to support the collation of all the different studies that are done in this area into usable databases that can then be disseminated. Here in the US, the Department of Agriculture has a long history of doing research and supporting database development on the nutrient composition of foods. This has allowed third-party developers to create diet assessment apps, which the public can then use to assess their own food choices based on nutrition.

There really is no reason why the same approach couldn’t be taken for assessing [the] environmental impacts of diets, other than perhaps a lack of awareness or a lack of political will. The Association of UK Dietitians developed the One Blue Dot toolkit in the UK. It’s a valuable resource for consumers eager to lower the adverse environmental effects of their dietary choices.

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