Not one person can continue to deny that climate change is happening. Across the entire globe, scientists are seeing changes in our climate, and some of these may be irreversible. Increasing heat waves, drought, forest fires and extreme weather events have the potential to change our ecosystems indefinitely. However, there is hope. Large reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions could dramatically reduce our warming climate.
Our food system is responsible for more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and 80 percent of this is due to animal agriculture. What we choose to put on our plate on a daily basis therefore greatly affects the environment in which we live. Many experts are now suggesting that a plant-based diet could help address our climate change issues.
Code red for humanity
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing science related to climate change. In their recent report, they stated that the climate is in crisis. “Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways. The changes we experience will increase with additional warming,” said the IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair, Panmao Zhai. The report makes it clear that climate change will bring about more significant weather events such as intense rainfall and flooding, droughts, melting of permafrost and sea-level rise in coastal cities. It will impact every one of us. And we are leaving this hideous legacy for our children.
The failing food system
With around 8 billion mouths to feed, no wonder our planet is struggling to produce all of the food we need. Carbon dioxide emissions from our food system affects climate change, which is further impacted by deforestation to produce the feed for the animals that we eat. The agriculture system is incredibly resource-intensive and uses about 43 percent of the surface of the Earth that is not covered by ice or desert. Our food production uses up to 70 percent of freshwater, the majority of this going to animal agriculture. Pollution, or eutrophication, of our environment from the animals we farm puts even more pressure on our delicate ecosystems.
Beef tops the list of the most greenhouse gas-emitting industries, with 60kg carbon dioxide emitted per kilogram of meat. Tofu per kilo, on the other hand, only produces 3kg. This is an example of two protein sources with vastly different environmental impacts.
With 60 percent of all mammals on Earth being farmed for food, immense strain is placed on the environment. If we include other animals that are used for food, the percentage is staggering. Wild animals account for a minute number of all living beings on the planet.
The planetary diet
It’s estimated that 820 million of the world’s population goes hungry, while others are overfed leading to an obesity epidemic in the Western world. Chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, are among the leading causes of death worldwide. This disproportionate distribution of food on the planet not only has an impact on limited resources but also human health.
Switching to a plant-based diet not only benefits the planet but also our health. Transitioning toward more plant-based diets could reduce global mortality by up to 10 percent and food-related greenhouse gas emissions to nearly 70 percent. In a previous article, I highlighted how eating whole plant foods can be beneficial for our health by enabling us to achieve a healthy weight and avoid many chronic diseases that plague the Western world.
There is no doubt that eating a plant-based diet benefits human health by reductions in diet-related mortality and greenhouse gas emissions. Following their 2019 report, the Eat Lancet Commission released the ‘Planetary Health Diet’. It emphasises a plant-centric diet where whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes make up a large proportion of foods consumed. Meat and dairy constitute only a very small amount of the diet.
What can you do to eat sustainably?
Switching to eating whole plant foods will dramatically lessen your impact on the planet and doesn’t need to be done overnight. You can start by switching out meat for tofu or lentils. Cutting down on your dairy consumption is easy when there are so many plant-based alternatives on the supermarket shelves these days. And when you learn the negative health effects of eating animal products it’s more incentive for change.
Eating plant-based foods will also broaden your tastes. With more than 30,000 known edible plants on the planet, we have a lifetime’s worth of interesting and delicious options to taste and explore. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. Eating plants can often be cheaper if you know how to source your ingredients.
Buying local produce and supporting regenerative farming practices will also lessen your impact on climate change. Regenerative farming helps store carbon in the soil, keeps pollutants away from our waterways, and allows local biodiversity to flourish. Moreover, plant foods have a much lower ecological footprint than animal foods regardless of how far they are shipped.
The BBC has released a Climate Change Food Calculator which helps you see what impact your food choices have on the planet. It’s quick and easy to see how the animal-based foods you may choose to put on your plate compare to those from plant sources. Planning for the food we eat can also reduce waste, further lessening our impact and allowing us to live more sustainably. With less food production comes less food wastage and the planet can be spared.
Leaving a legacy for our children
Avoiding animal products is one of the biggest ways we can reduce our environmental impact and mitigate climate change. But change needs to occur now. We all have the ability to be a part of the solution. You can start today by making conscious choices about what you buy, cook and put on your plate. By adopting a plant-based diet, we can live more sustainable lives and leave our children with a healthy, beautiful planet to enjoy.