Food and Climate Change
Today I want to discuss a matter that is very dear to my heart, and that in my opinion,
should be relevant to everybody. Climate change is happening, and it’s happening quickly. The science and research is there, and it has told us that at the pace we are going, our future kids and grandkids won’t have a place to live in. I am a fitness professional, but also a health professional and since this topic directly impacts community health, I think it is worth discussing it; specifically, I want to discuss the relationship between our diets (what we eat) and this major global issue. Greenhouse gas emissions are one of the main contributors to climate change and global warming. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “greenhouse gasses from human activities are the most significant driver of observed climate change since the mid-20th century.” Even though said emissions can come from different sources, I want to talk about the relationship between food and said emissions. As stated by the United Nations, about a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions is linked to food. Thus, let’s quickly evaluate the impact of two different diets on the environment: animal-based and plant-based.
An animal-based diet consist of mainly of foods coming from animal sources such as
poultry, red meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, etc. The United Nations (UN) identified that most of the food-related greenhouse gasses come from agriculture and land use related to the production of animal-based food. The major greenhouse gasses are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gasses. Some of the direct effects of an animal-based diet on the emission of greenhouse gasses are the methane produced from cattle’s digestive process, the nitrous oxide from fertilizers used in crop production, carbon dioxide from cutting forests to expand farmland, and so on. It is important to keep in mind that every step that entails the consumption of food (growing and processing, transportation, distribution, preparation, consumption, and disposal) creates greenhouse gasses. Indeed, the UN was also able to identify that the foods with the highest greenhouse emissions were animal-based food, in particular, red meat, dairy and farmed shrimp.
On the other hand, there is plant-based diets which can be either vegetarian or vegan diets. Both diets focus on foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, lentils, etc. However, the main difference between vegetarian and vegan diets is that vegans do not consume any type of animal product, while vegetarians usually only restrict meats like poultry, fish, red meat, etc. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that this is a broad description of the term, and that each vegan and vegetarian is different and has distinct standards for a plant-based diet. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), shifting to a plant-based diet not only has health benefits, but also could lead to a significant reduction of greenhouse gas emission. They state that this shift could reduce greenhouse gasses produced by food production by 70% by 2050; “vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with the greatest reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.” Even though a plant-based diet still has a negative impact on the environment, it is not nearly as big as an animal-based diet. As a matter of fact the World Health Organization (WHO) states on one of their bulletins that “cutting back on red meat production reduces the nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is the third most important man-made greenhouse gas and the most important anthropogenic contributor to stratospheric ozone destruction. Reducing livestock herds would also reduce emissions of methane, which is the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide.”
Decreasing animal agriculture is suggested to be the answer not only to slow down climate change, but even revert it. In a study done by scientists from Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley, the authors concluded that reducing and eventually eliminating animal agriculture should be at the top of the list for solutions for climate change. The positive impact of the shift would mainly come from decreasing the emission of methane and nitrous oxide, as well as recovering the biomass in natural ecosystems.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the food industry and our eating habits play a major role in the environment. Research has successfully proved and pointed out that our choice of diet could might as well be sinking us deeper and deeper into the path of climate disaster. At the current pace we are going, the earth as we know it will be gone in a matter of decades. Certainly there are a lot of factors that play into the emission of greenhouse gasses, however, the percentage that is dictated by animal agriculture is extremely high. Thus, an animal-based diet is directly, and greatly, affecting climate change. The solution relies on a change of diet. As discussed previously, changing from an animal-based to a plant-based diet, will not only decrease the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, but will also help counterattack the damage already done. In reality, the most practical and reasonable solution is not to demand or expect everyone to change to a plant-based diet. The goal should be to focus on reduction rather than elimination. The solution to global warming and climate change can be found in reducing the quantity of animal products people consume in their everyday lives. If a diet that relies more heavily on plants is promoted and advocated for, then the impact of production and processing of animal-based foods will dramatically decrease.