food

The difference our eating choices can make

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.

Where do I come on this graph personally? I’d be closest to the two thirds vegan, though without the red meat. I’m more than two thirds vegan, and tend to say I eat a plant based diet rather than get into arguments about what is and what isn’t ‘allowed’.

This is partly a matter of personality. Some people prefer to draw a hard line and stick to it, and I see the value of that. I’m more wary of black and white commitments, and I like making ongoing positive choices around what I eat. It’s partly a family practicality, of what we’re going to feed and kids and how awkward we want to be at school and round other people’s houses. I don’t like turning down other people’s hospitality or being an inconvenience.

And it’s partly because I like food. Food is a gift and a joy, and I find that is eroded by having to choose from two or three options at a restaurant, or scanning the list of ingredients on a product to make sure it doesn’t include a forbidden item such as whey powder or gelatin. I want the freedom to enjoy good food, wisely and in moderation. Or as the Apostle Paul wrote, “everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.”

These are things we all have to negotiate with ourselves and those around us. We should be ready to encourage more climate friendly choices without judging others. As the graph shows, there’s a whole spectrum of options. Some are going to move faster and further than others – though everybody should be moving. And don’t get too hung up on the definitions and categories. It’s okay to be a vegan who eats ice cream.

4 comments

  1. An interesting and useful post, as always. The only point I would like to make is that this graph is concerned with carbon emissions only, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it is important to note that there are other environmental issues around fishing, for instance, that are not considered here.
    It may be splitting hairs but the terms “environment friendly” and “climate friendly” are not identical and even climate change has other drivers alongside CO2 (methane, for instance).

    1. You’re right, and the broader study looks at water and land use as well carbon emissions. Then you’ve got chemical use and animal welfare in there as well. It’s a complicated business, deciding what to eat. This is greenhouse gases though, so it would include methane.

    1. That’s true, and we often have dairy free versions in our freezer. It occurred to me when we were on holiday though and we visited an ice cream parlour – over 30 flavours, and vegan vanilla…

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