climate change food

What’s the climate impact of your diet?

Last week I spoke at an event for students at Bedfordshire University, and the topic that generated the most debate was food. It was an event around a meal – part of Tearfund’s Stir Up Supper campaign – so perhaps that’s not surprising. As usual, the big issue was meat. Another contributor spoke about how he had chosen to become a vegetarian and how he had found it easier than he thought it would be. Others said the opposite, that they had tried and given up.

Meat is a carbon intensive food, by and large, so it’s right to focus on it as we look at our diets. But just to fill out the picture, here’s how it would make a difference, and some of the other things to consider:

  • If you do want to consider the vegan route, cutting out meat and dairy will make the biggest difference, slashing 43% off the greenhouse gas emissions from what you eat.
  • Eating less meat and dairy, and switching to less carbon intensive meats (chicken or pork rather than beef or lamb) can still cut emissions by 34%.
  • Buying more local foods in order to reduce air miles will make a smaller difference than some might assume, given how often it gets mentioned. For British readers, eating local would cut 8-13%.
  • How much do you eat? Anything more than we actually need is wasted, and is unhealthy too – but that extra food still had to be grown and shipped. If we all stuck to the recommended portion sizes, that would knock an estimated 15% off the emissions from food right away.
  • On that note, the average UK diet is quite some distance from what nutritionists would recommend. If we all moved to a healthy diet, that would trim 19% of our emissions as well as delivering all kinds of health benefits.
  • Of course, anything you throw away had to be grown and shipped too. Halving food waste could cut as much as 25% if you eat a lot of meat and dairy, less if you already eat more sustainably.

Those figures are all from the Centre for Alternative Technology’s report People, Plate and Planet, which compares several different diets and various ways to reduce their climate impact. Some of the differences are less than obvious, to do with the ingredients or the amount of processing that a food needs. If you’re looking to reduce your dairy intake, for example, starting with cheese would make a bigger difference than cutting out milk or yogurt.

Beyond the food itself, there are choices to make about how we cook and store food. If we look at total food related emissions, 40% are to do with things like refrigeration, cooking, and how we travel to the shops.

So there are a number of things we can do, and as always, there’s no need to be absolutist about it. Make incremental changes, try things out, do what feels like the next natural step.

And if you want to get to grips with your current diet, see how it compares to the average and get specific recommendations, try CAT’s online tool Laura’s Larder. Using the same data as the report mentioned above, it allows you to enter the foods you eat over the course of a week, and calculate the overall impact of your diet. Definitely worth doing if you’re serious about looking at what you eat.


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