It’s a well-known fact that our food rearing and consumption habits are a major contributor to climate change. According to many sources, livestock rearing and agriculture are responsible for 18% to 25% of global emissions. Like it or not, one of the top things you can do to shrink your footprint is change your eating habits. Below we break down how to do this.
Quick Impact Stats on Food Consumption
- No animal products for one day = -5.5 LBS CO2e and -$1.53
- No meat for one day = -4.4 LBS CO2e and -$1.53
- No red meat for one day = -3.3 LBS CO2e and -$1.07
- Skipping a pre-made breakfast sandwich = -3.2 LBS CO2e and -$5
- No animal products for a year = -2000 LBS CO2e and -$559
- No meat for a year = -1600 LBS CO2e and -$559
- No red meat for a year = -1200 LBS CO2e and -$389
- Growing your own vegetables = -340 LBS CO2e and -$257
Top Ways to Reduce Your Food Consumption Carbon Footprint
#1 – Eat Less Meat and Dairy (and Eggs)
According to an Oxford study, half of food-based emissions are from animal products. Yes carnivores and cheese-heads, I know you’re tired of hearing that you’re killing the earth. However, like it or lump it, eating less animal products is the #1 way to reduce your carbon footprint from food consumption. Here’s an overview of why meat, dairy, and other animal-based products have a higher carbon footprint than other types of food:
- More land is required – It takes more land to produce animal-based products than other foods. This is because land is required for raising livestock AND for growing the plants and food the livestock eats. So, energy and emissions are generated to clear land where the animals live AND to clear land where food is grown for the animals. This is even more true of livestock reared on deforested land (as opposed to natural pastures).
- More processing and transport is required – More processing is required for animal-based products than other food types. This is because the plants that are grown to feed the livestock must be harvested, transported to a processing facility, processed into food, then transported to the animals. The animals themselves must also be transported to a processing facility, ‘processed’ into meat, transported to stores, then transported to homes. All these extra processing and transportation steps create more emissions than if the plants themselves were simply processed into food that humans then ate.
- Animals fart and create methane – As odd as this sounds, one reason red meat is much worse for the environment than, for example, chicken is because cows and lambs fart a lot during their digestion processes, thus producing methane gas. No joke.
- Imbalance of Effort to Produce vs Nutritional Value – Although it takes a lot more energy to farm animal-based products, they provide only around one-fifth of the calories humans intake. So there’s a big disconnect on effort vs. value.
One thing to remember is that not all animal-based products are created equal. Beef and lamb are by far the worst for the environment, so reducing your intake of these meats will be hugely beneficial.
#2 – Buy Locally Grown, Caught, or Produced Food
Other great ways to reduce your food footprint are to purchase locally grown, produced, or caught food. To take this a step further, try growing, hunting, or catching your own food. Buying, growing, and producing locally cuts out most of the transport and land clearing emissions tied to food consumption. This also ensures that you aren’t buying food produced in an area, such as Latin America, that generates the highest food production emissions.
Check out the diagrams below for more details on how emissions vary by producing region.
#3 – Eat Foods with a Lower Carbon Footprint
Different foods have different carbon footprints. Although, as we showed above, the footprint of each type of food varies tremendously based on where and how it’s grown, you can still use a few general rules to find foods with lower carbon footprints. For example:
- The less processed or more natural a food is, the lower its carbon footprint will be.
- As a general rule, anything from an animal is higher impact. Of course the actual impact depends on where it’s from (local is better), and how it was produced.
- Red meat is the most carbon intensive type of meat.
- Nuts, beans, and vegetables are generally lowest impact.
- Fruit is higher impact than vegetables and some meats because it’s rarely grown locally, and usually a rainforest or similar area has been deforested to make way for fruit farms.
- Anything that’s grown in an area that was deforested to make way for the food is high impact.
#4 – Just Do the Best You Can
Unless you’re homesteading and producing 100% of your food organically with water you recapture and reuse, you will never do this perfectly. Just do the best you can without sacrificing nutritional value. As many have said, we don’t need 100 people doing sustainability perfectly; we need 10 million people doing it imperfectly.
To better understand CO2 emissions generated by various food consumption activities and how to offset them, see our carbon emissions calculator.