Solar Tribune

Climate Change Action: Food and Diet

The food we eat, many people may be surprised to find, can have some of the most measurable impacts on our carbon footprints, especially when looked at in terms of household consumption. From the agriculture industry that grows the food, the production and processing plants, the transportation of food from production to ultimate consumption, and even the waste products created, greenhouse gases are an inherent part of the food bill. However, adjustments to how, where, and what you eat can then become one of the most direct and immediate ways that carbon footprints can be balanced towards being more climate-conscious.

When it comes to personal actions, addressing food and diet is one of the most personal an impactful categories according to Justin Mog, Ph.D. Assistant to the Provost on Sustianability Initiatives:

“The actions I focus on are because they are impactful in changing our mindset and our perspective on the world and they help to snowball and lead to other positive changes, and it starts what you eat and how you get around. Transportation and food are the most important choices, especially in Louisville where we’re so car dependent and have public health issues. Transition away from car dependency has such a huge impact on health, connection with the community, and on urban infrastructure trends and development. Building activity into your day, such as walking to a bus stop or biking to where you need to go, can help public health and create that positive change. And diet of course benefits the public health as well and can have a huge impact because of the effect industrial agriculture has on climate change, while eating more local also has the additional benefit of supporting the local economy.” – Justin Mog, Ph.D.Assistant to the Provost for Sustainability Initiatives @ University of Louisville —

When it comes to food and diet, the most immediately impactful decisions that can be made include the following:


Switch to a More Plant-Based Diet

climate change plant based diet

What the action looks like: In order to feed the global population, a diet filled with more plants instead of animals and animal products is more efficient and reduces carbon emissions. An easy way to conceptualize why this is the case is by thinking about where the energy from your food comes from. When you eat plants, those plants get their energy from the sun and then you take the energy by eating it. When you eat meat or animal products, though, the energy goes from the sun to a plant that the animal eats before you get energy from the animal’s meat. That extra step is added inefficiency, and as such plant-based diets end up using up less land and water while creating fewer carbon emissions associated with transportation, processing, and the natural gaseous emissions from livestock. Eating lower on the food chain is thus an effective way to reduce your personal carbon footprint.

What the impact is: According to data analyzed by The Economist:

Giving up meat makes a big difference. For instance, compared with an American who eats 2,300 calories of a typical mix of foods, one who became vegetarian would knock 30 percent off their annual greenhouse-gas emissions from eating. But dairy, produced by methane-emitting cows, is still costly. Environmentally conscious omnivores can get similar reductions in their carbon footprints by cutting out milk and cheese. A better option still would be to go vegan for two-thirds of meals, while still occasionally indulging in animal products. Doing so would cut food-related greenhouse-gas emissions by nearly 60 percent. Absolute veganism, unsurprisingly, is the most environmentally friendly. Die-hard leaf-eaters can claim to have knocked off 85 percent off their carbon footprint.

Level of difficulty: Varies—depends on  your dietary restrictions, your culinary skills, and your willingness to make the adjustment. Some find the change to be easy, others it would be a great challenge.

Relevant quotes, stakeholders, and resources:

Plant-based diet can fight climate change – UN by BBC News

The Case for Plant Based by UCLA

Eating Plant-Based Diets Can Play a Huge Role in Limiting the Effects of Climate Change by Bioneers

“The easiest first thing you to do if you want a really big difference with your carbon footprint is to either stop eating meat or cut down on your meat consumption, which is one of the biggest contributors to the carbon footprint of the American lifestyle. If someone wanted to know how to make a big difference now without spending a ton of money and they’re willing to make a lifestyle change, I would so go vegetarian and you’ll cut a giant chunk of your carbon footprint immediately.“ – Daniel Bellerose, Student Programs Coordinator, Program Assistant for Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions

“The single most effective action people can take to reduce their carbon footprint is to have fewer children. Especially Americans: Each child born in the U.S. adds an average of 117 tons of CO2-equivalent emissions per year, according to a recent study. Eliminate those emissions dwarfs any other action we can take. Perhaps the next most important move is to stop eating meat, or to eat much less meat. The meat and dairy industries have a huge emissions footprint—perhaps 37 percent or more of greenhouse gas emissions. Governments and politicians have largely been afraid to touch either of these topics—population and diet—so it may be up to individuals to lead these changes.” – Jeff McMahon, Senior Contributor for Green Tech at Forbes

“It’s a thorny, nuanced conversation, because a steak produced in one way may be better for the climate than a salad produced in another way. I know virtuous ways to produce red meat, and terrible ways to produce plants. But the Michael Pollan quote–  Eat food, mostly plants–  is a good rule of thumb as a consumer if you want to have a pretty good chance at reducing your carbon footprint.“ – Evan D. G. Fraser, PhD, Director, Arrell Food Institute, Dept. of Geography, Environment, and Geomatics at the University of Guelph

Eat More Locally Produced Food

local food farmers market green climate change

What the action looks like: By ensuring the transportation emissions associated with your food are minimized, eating locally grown and produced food products is a measurable way you can impact your carbon footprint, the climate and environment around you, and even do so while supporting your local economy. Local food production and consumption can have some downstream benefits as well, as you are more likely to be supporting agriculture that is natural to the geographic region and has less of a negative impact on the climate from tearing down trees, rainforests, and the associated natural biodiversity. The forests, in particular, are important to preserve for their carbon sucking capabilities, and eating local is likely to help with that.

What the impact is: According to the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan:

The production of food accounts for 68% of emissions, while its transportation accounts for 5%.

Level of difficulty: This task can be easy if you happen to live in an area where food is grown and produced and if you can afford the potential increase in food costs that come from local food consumption, but for many households, it may be less feasible due to seasonality of crops, inability to pay higher food bills, and simple lack of access.

Relevant quotes, stakeholders, and resources:

Local food and climate change by Making Local Food Work

Eating Locally and in Season: Is It Really Better for the Environment by EcoWatch

“It seems simple and it gets overlooked all the time, but the answer starts with food. Food production for the planet, considering that we’re growing by the billions in population, leads to the question: how do we grow that food for future needs? Mass farming requires a great deal of equipment, shipping and processing, all adding to greenhouse emissions. Food production on a smaller scale needs to be a part of the solution, including local farms and gardens. We need to bring food production to the individual family unit and show them how their purchasing power towards more local food production and home growing can go a long way to offset global greenhouse emissions. It also offsets some of the need for water and reduces waste caused by packaging.” – Miriam Delicado, Executive Director, The Great Gathering Nonprofit

“Food production and looking at what you eat is critical. I live in Montana and we are a cattle state, we see the cows that are out there every day. While it might not seem like it’s very harmful to produce food from those cattle, but understand that a cow might have a bit of a carbon footprint on its own but then you look more into it and you realize that cow could get shipped to North Dakota to be slaughtered then to Ohio to get processed then distributed from Missouri and then get stocked in your local grocery store. That cow may travel more than you do all year just so you can eat it later.” — Patrick Colleran, Logistics and Rider Coordinator of Climate Ride

“On the food side, there’s a lot of interest at the moment in plant based diets rather than meat heavy diets. Even with the more plant based diets, there are questions about whether, for example, people in Europe should be buying avocados from South America, due to the water use implications for local communities there, as well as high carbon emissions from air miles. Getting people to think about where their food is coming from and why, in itself is a great first step. Even starting with asking whether the green beans you’re buying are coming from the Netherlands or Kenya for example, gets your thought processes going –  which ones are you going to buy or are you going to buy cabbage instead if it’s grown more locally? There’s been a massive shift during the pandemic towards doing some gardening, growing some produce yourself, and buying local. These kinds of actions are great and an easy first step to getting involved.”  – Lindsay Stringer, Professor in Environment and Development, Department of Environment and Geography, University of York


This page is a part of the Solar Tribune Series on how individuals and policymakers can tackle climate change. Click here to see the overview of this series and see the other categories of action.

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