The Impact of Our Diet on the Planet

By: Shubir Kapoor

The global food system, which spreads across production and post-farm activities such as processing and distribution is a key contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It’s a problem for which we don’t yet have viable technological solutions. A study conducted by the University of Oxford in 2018 revealed 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) generated by the global food supply chain. A complementary study by Leeds University in the U.K revealed that the annual consumption per person globally for food is 0.7 tons of CO2 equivalent. To put this in perspective, food is responsible for approximately 26% of global GHG emissions

The report states that there are four key elements to consider when trying to quantify food GHG emissions.

  1. Livestock & fisheries account for 31% of food emissions
  2. Crop production accounts for 27% of food emissions. 
  3. Land use accounts for 24% of food emissions.
  4. Supply chains account for 18% of food emission

There is a growing awareness that our diet and food choices have a significant impact on our carbon ‘footprint’. What can you do to really reduce the carbon footprint of your diet?

Is “Eating Local” the solution ?

‘Eating local’ is a recommendation you hear often. While it might make sense intuitively since transport does lead to emissions, the hard numbers state a different story. Eating locally would  have a significant impact if transport was responsible for a large share of food’s final carbon footprint. However for many foods, this is not the case. GHG emissions from transportation make up a very small amount of the emissions from food and what you eat is far more important than where your food traveled from. As an example, eating local beef or lamb has much more of a carbon footprint than most other foods. Whether they are grown locally, or shipped from the other side of the world, matters very little for total emissions. This does not imply that we should not eat local and support our local farmers. It’s about understanding the trade-offs and differences between eating smart and eating local.

Know the carbon footprint of your diet

Managing your diet can make a big difference to your personal environmental footprint, from saving water to reducing pollution, and the loss of forests. Cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by two-thirds, according to the Oxford study, published in the Journal of Science. When it comes to our diets, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we need to buy less meat, milk, cheese and butter, but also eat more locally sourced seasonal food and throw less of it away. 

Knowing how and where your food is produced is also important, as the same food can have huge differences in environmental impact. For example, 

  • Beef cattle raised on deforested land is responsible for 12 times more greenhouse gas emissions than cows reared on natural pastures. 
  • A chocolate bar from the deforested rainforest emits more than a serving of low impact beef. 
  • A portion of the highest-impact vegetable proteins emit less that the lowest impact-animal proteins.
  • Tomatoes grown outdoors or in high-tech greenhouses are more climate-friendly as compared to those grown in greenhouses heated by gas or oil. 
  • Environmentally-minded beer-drinkers may be interested to know that draught beer is responsible for fewer emissions than recyclable cans, or worse, glass bottles.

For more information on how your food choices impact the environment and better understand your diet’s carbon footprint, you can visit 

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46459714. The ‘diet calculator’ has a unique way to convert the food of your choice to the equivalent of emissions from a car or heating a home.  For example, did you know that a daily cup of coffee contributes to approximately 155kg of annual GHGs? That’s equivalent to driving a car 400 miles or heating an average home for 24 days. 

Reduce your Food Waste

Most people don’t realize how much food they throw away every day — from uneaten leftovers to spoiled produce. EPA estimates that in 2018, about 68 percent of the wasted food we generated, or about 42.8 million tons, ended up in landfills or combustion facilities resulting in an increase of methane emissions. Reducing food waste not only saves money and reduces methane emissions, but it also conserves energy and resources by preventing pollution involved in the growing, manufacturing, transporting, and selling food. You can also support your community by donating untouched food that would have otherwise gone to waste to those who might not have a steady food supply. Find your closest food bank and donate your untouched leftover food to those in need. Last but not the least, you can also compost your food scraps rather than adding them into your kitchen garbage bag. 

Yorktown100 is a 100% volunteer group of neighbors working to reduce our carbon footprint by 5% a year through various programs.   Contact us if you would like to learn more or would like to join. We welcome new members! 

Our next Community Meeting will be March 8th at 7 PM. Our topic is Clean Electricity. Join us on Zoom or Facebook live stream.

Visit us at https://yorktown100.org/ and help make a difference.

Shubir Kapoor manages digital product development at a global renewable energy analytics organization. He is a member of Yorktown100 and a responsible member of society looking for ways to reduce our environmental impact and move towards sustainable living.

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