Globally, the food system accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions. Within the food system, over 30% of emissions are from livestock and fisheries (with an additional 22% added to these emissions for production of animal feed and land use for livestock), over 20% from direct emissions to grow crops, and a little under 20% from the supply chain, which includes processing, packaging, retail, transport, and food waste.
With climate change becoming a more pressing matter by the day, you may be trying to find ways to lower your personal impact. Here are eight ways you can make your diet more environmentally friendly.
Eat Less Meat and Choose Organic Meat
Because over half of the emissions from the global food system can be traced back to livestock and fisheries, reducing the amounts of red and white meats consumed is the biggest impact an individual can have on their food-related emissions. Although some seafood, especially farmed seafood like shrimp, can require significant emissions to harvest, fish on the whole is much more environmentally friendly than meat. Choosing wild caught seafood is an easy switch to reduce seafood impact. Beef is by far the most intensive animal product, with lamb close behind. Even though we often think of chicken as a sustainable alternative, it still carries over double the median emissions of tofu and over six times the emissions of beans.
The key here is to reduce meat consumption. For someone who eats meat daily, it’s not practical to immediately go full vegetarian. Start with switching to a plant-based diet once or twice a week, experimenting with new recipes. Over time, you can try to cut back more days. You might even start to see positive changes in your body.
On the days that you do eat meat, try to choose organic and sustainably produced meat. Even though you won’t see the drastic decrease in emissions like you would with switching from farmed fish to wild caught, it will still help, while simultaneously decreasing some negative health effects of commercial meat. Although organic production has higher emissions than conventional production for beef, largely due to increased methane production, organic pigs and poultry both have lower emissions than their conventional counterparts. Studies have shown lower rates of salmonella in certified organic poultry, and conventionally grown chicken is often injected with water, salt, and preservatives that are not permitted for organic chicken.
Reduce Food Waste
A full quarter of food production emissions can be traced back to food waste, either from consumers or the supply chain. Reducing your food waste is not only beneficial to the environment, but it’s also great to get the most out of your money spent on food. The easiest way to lower food waste is to plan out how perishable foods will be used before buying them. Once food is in your home, there are multiple ways to store longer-term. Most produce can be frozen, though often some prep is needed first: spinach, for example, should be blanched, though other foods like blueberries can largely be frozen as-is. Many items can also be canned or dehydrated, though both methods often require a bit more labor than freezing. Food scraps can also be put to use instead of tossed. In the freezer, keep a bag of scraps like carrot tops, corn cobs, celery leaves, and any vegetables that have started wilting (not rotting). Once the bag is full, make a vegetable stock or broth. A similar process can be used to make a meat broth by saving scraps and bones.
Sometimes we forget about something in the fridge, and it ends up rotten, unable to be used for even a broth. In that case, it’s beneficial to have a compost bin. Some cities have municipal compost systems, but if you live in a smaller town or rural area, consider starting your own compost or worm bin in your yard. The compost will make a great soil fertilizer and will help with cutting back on landfill space and emissions. All scraps after making stock can then be put in the compost, as well as things like eggshells or fruit scraps that can’t be used in stock.
Start a Garden
Research has suggested that growing your own food can help to reduce emissions. To have the most effective garden in reducing emissions, it’s important to have a compost bin and use the compost in the garden. Composting here has a twofold benefit: reducing food waste in landfills and providing nutrients to the garden to allow better yields. Using power tools, fertilizers, pesticides, and excessive watering can all lower the positive impact of a home garden. Only grow produce that you will eat, and when planting, consider what to do with excess yields: freeze, can, dehydrate, or give to neighbors.
At my house, we primarily only grow enough to eat in season, but leftover hot peppers and herbs get frozen for use throughout the winter. A neighbor has a free farm stand they put at the end of their driveway with excess produce from their garden. A home garden only has a positive impact if the food is eaten!
We’ve already talked about the importance of buying organic meat, but what about produce? As we saw with meats, the environmental impact of organic is highly variable, depending on the food item, where it’s grown, and how well pests can be controlled with relatively gentler pesticides. The main reason for this discrepancy is that, in the absence of fertilizers and pesticides, organic foods often take longer or more land to produce the same yield as a conventional farm. Many assessments of “sustainability” also only account for greenhouse gas emissions relative to production, so other factors important to sustainability like biodiversity (of surrounding lands, food crops, and pollinators), runoff of pesticides/fertilizers, and water use are either not considered or just briefly noted. Many of these factors (like biodiversity) are difficult to quantify, and therefore have not been fully quantified in research. There is no easy answer, but depending on how you view sustainability, buying organic can help reduce environmental impact.
Look for Independent Certifications
There are numerous independent certifications that certify varying levels of protections for ecosystems, workers, and biodiversity. This is not an exhaustive list, but just some certifications, and what they mean.
- Demeter Biodynamic labeling takes organic certification to the next level. Whereas USDA organic permits use of limited pesticides, foods that are certified Biodynamic use a more holistic approach. For example, instead of herbicides to kill weeds, farms will use mulch and take proactive steps to prevent weeds. Farms must also take preservation steps like rotating crops and setting aside at least ten percent of land as a biodiversity preserve.
- Looking at animal products, there are a few certifications. Animal Welfare Approved is regarded as the strictest standards. Animals are required to be raised on pasture or range, and there are set minimum levels of land per animal, among other species-specific requirements.
- For seafood, the MSC certification assesses sustainability of wild-caught fish. MSC certification also requires frequent DNA testing of fish to ensure fish is actually what is marketed. ASC is similar to MSC, but works with farmed seafood. Both ASC and MSC are recommended by the World Wildlife Fund. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app is another great resource for finding sustainable seafood, especially on the go. Check the Good Fish Guide from the Marine Conservation Society, too, to learn more about the sustainability of individual types of seafood.
- Palm oil gets a bad rap due to the deforestation that has made way for its production, endangering species. The RSPO certification signifies sustainably produced palm oil.
- Hormone and antibiotic labeling on meats are regulated by the USDA. Organic meats cannot have added hormones or antibiotics, but when buying conventional meats, the phrases “no added hormones,” “no added antibiotics,” and “raised without antibiotics” are all regulated and trustworthy claims.
Many people think that the environmental benefit to buying local is to cut down on transportation emissions, but transportation only accounts for six percent of global food emissions. There are some highly perishable goods that must be air freighted to their destinations, and these foods do come with huge transportation emissions. However, air freighted produce is the minority of foods. Unfortunately there isn’t a foolproof way of determining if food has been air freighted, but in general, look out for highly perishable goods that are from far away destinations. Chilean strawberries in England or Californian asparagus in Sweden are examples of likely contenders for air freight.
Beyond transportation emissions, buying local is important for supporting your local food system and to cut back on emissions from commercial processing. Buying from a local grower allows you to learn much more about the food, like pesticides used and varieties grown. Some farmers are also great resources for learning about how to prepare foods you haven’t encountered before or the best ways to store items longer-term. On the processing end, food purchased directly from a farm either at the farm or from a farmers’ market, especially from a small farm, has often not gone through the commercial processing that happens before getting to a grocery store. Processing provides shelf stability and pristine looks for the store, but is not always practical for smaller growers, and isn’t always necessary. Locally grown food also supports your local economy!
Buy Seasonally Appropriate Food
Buying seasonally appropriate food goes hand-in-hand with buying local, because locally available food will only be what is in season (there are exceptions, of course — for example, larger apple growers may have a climate controlled storage building or room to keep apples for sale throughout the winter). However, sometimes it is difficult to buy hyper-local foods, because not all areas are suitable for growing a diversity of food year-round. In this case, regional, seasonally appropriate foods are great alternatives. Seasonally appropriate foods often have the added benefit of tasting the freshest, too!
Reduce Plastic Packaging
The vast majority of plastics are not recycled. In 2018, less than 10% of plastics generated were recycled. The majority of recycled plastics were PET plastics and jars (like those used for bottled beverages) and HDPE bottles (commonly used for milk jugs), but even the majority of those plastics were not recycled. Packaging materials are commonly sent to landfills because they are either unable to be recycled or have complex recycling needs. Cutting back on foods with large amounts of plastic packaging can help to lower emissions through saving landfill waste as well as reducing emissions from manufacturing the plastic.
Some tips for limiting plastic packaging in the grocery store:
- Bring your own bags to the store, including reusable produce bags.
- Buy beverages in cartons or cans instead of plastic containers.
- For items like nuts or candy, buy from the bulk food section or a bulk food store and use a reusable container or bag instead of single-use plastic bags.
- Prioritize glass, steel, or aluminum packaging over plastics because they can yield longer shelf lives and are more likely to be recycled (bonus: glass jars can be reused for food storage!).
- At home, consider using beeswax wrap instead of plastic wrap, and reusable food storage bags instead of plastic bags.
Like any of these ideas? Have some of your own? Let us know what steps you’re taking to have a more environmentally-friendly diet!