Until recently, many of us thought that the best way to have a sustainable diet is to buy our foods locally. However, recent research shows that it’s not so much about where our food comes from – what matters most are the kinds of foods we’re eating. That is because the farming process, land use change, production of animal feed and food processing all have a larger carbon footprint than the transportation process.
The High Carbon Footprint Foods to Avoid
Animal products have 10-50 times higher carbon footprints than their respective pant-based alternatives. However, there are some particular offenders among animal products that you’ll want to avoid more than others – beef, lamb, mutton and dairy (above all cheese).
Beef, Lamb, Mutton and Other Red Meat
Cows and sheep have one thing in common that makes animal products derived from them the most environmentally-harmful – they produce methane as they digest. Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 84 times more potent in the short term than CO2.
The production of meat also requires large amounts of space: both to keep the animals and to grow livestock feed. In countries such as Brazil, where large amounts of beef are produced, rainforests are being cut down because of this. Speaking of deforestation, soy is often named as one of the crops responsible for it. But did you know that nearly 80% of the world’s soy production is fed to livestock?
You’re likely wondering now if we could solve the problem by producing all meat sustainably. This question is tricky to answer because of one crucial problem – we are currently consuming way more meat (especially red meat) than what we could produce sustainably, there’s simply not enough space on earth to do that. Therefore, if we hope to make use of sustainable practices which would allow us to enjoy meat from time to time, we need to work on reducing our consumption.
Many dairy products have a lower carbon footprint than meat – including yoghurt, cream cheese or milk (although it is worth noting that dairy-free alternatives still have a fraction of the environmental footprint of these). However, Our World In Data ranks cheese as the food with the third highest carbon footprint of all, just after beef and lamb with mutton. This is because of the quantities of milk that are needed to produce hard cheeses.
What’s the Solution?
The data speaks loud and clear – a plant-based diet has a much lower carbon footprint. So, does that mean you should go vegan?
If that’s what you want to progress towards, going vegan is a wonderful way to reduce your environmental impact and carbon footprint, improve your health and show compassion to animals. Just keep in mind that if you do decide to go vegan, quitting cold turkey (pun intended) may not be the best option. Try progressing towards a plant-based diet by eliminating one food category at once and progressing towards another once you’re used to the change.
That being said, you don’t necessarily have to go vegan to drastically reduce your carbon footprint. It’s all about reducing your consumption of the most environmentally-damaging foods and making one conscious choice at a time. Participate in meatless Mondays, set yourself a meat and dairy consumption limit for every week or simply think of your footprint one meal at a time.
Lastly, remember that each of us must play our part in making the world a greener place – and all of our contributions matter if we hope to stop climate change.
A Note About Food Waste
Another substantial source of methane is food waste sent to landfill. In the US, 30%-40% of all food supply is wasted. The correct way to dispose of any food waste is via composting, where scraps are given optimum conditions to break down. However, most food waste today ends up in a landfill where it cannot decompose properly as it lacks access to oxygen, thus emitting methane.
If you’re hoping to lower your carbon footprint and eat a sustainable diet, reduce your food waste as much as possible and compost whatever’s left.