In January of this year, it was announced that 2016 was our warmest year on record- surpassing records set in both 2015 and 2014.[1] Our world is now 0.87°C warmer than it was in 1880, and, given our current trajectory, we are set to reach four degrees by the end of this century.[2] Steady warming over recent decades has already caused overwhelming climate-related impacts for populations around the globe.[3]

Although shifting to a low-carbon world poses significant challenges, the agricultural sector presents us with an area of great, but lesser-known, opportunity. Simply decreasing our intake of those food products that have large carbon footprints goes a long way toward mitigating climate change.[4]

The notion that personal food choices might play a role in environmental sustainability and, more specifically, in reducing our impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, has been gaining momentum.[5]

Sustainable, Climate-Friendly Food Choices

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©  2016, Plant Based Living Initiative

‍‍‍©  2016, Plant Based Living Initiative

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Eating patterns that are harmful for our climate

Around the world, climate impacts (in the form of greenhouse gas emissions) associated with the production of various foods have been assessed, offering insight into opportunities for more sustainable population-wide eating patterns.[6]

Livestock production, in particular, has repeatedly been identified as a great environmental burden, requiring massive quantities of land and contributing significantly to both soil erosion and water pollution.[7]

In a recent FAO report, it has been estimated that the livestock sector alone is responsible for a very significant chunk of GHG emissions, accounting for 14.5% of total global GHGs.[8] This is a higher share than all forms of world transportation combined- clearly underlining the livestock sector’s significant contribution to climate change.[9]

  • Animal products in general are GHG intensive- emissions are highest from cattle and sheep rearing, while pork, poultry, eggs and milk are, on a per kilogram basis, significantly less so[10].
  • It is well established that whole, plant-based foods are, overall, substantially less GHG-intensive than animal foods.[11] The production of legumes, whole grains, and vegetables emits the least GHGs, while vegetable products that are air freighted (i.e. exotic produce), and those that require intensive heating locally (e.g. glass house heating) are exceptions to this rule[12].

The typical ‘Western’ eating pattern is especially problematic.[13] In moving away from the current norm, a step-wise reduction in GHG emissions associated with a person’s everyday food habits is identifiable. Even making the leap from being a ‘high meat eater’ (≥100 grams per day) to a ‘low meat eater’ (<50 grams per day) confers a substantial difference in terms of emissions (35% reduction in GHGs); while becoming vegetarian (i.e. no meat intake), as compared to being a ‘high meat eater,’ would result in GHG savings of 47%![14]

The great co-benefit opportunity!

Poor eating habits have, furthermore, long been known to play a significant role in the establishment and progression of common chronic diseases- including overweight and obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disesases (including heart disease and stroke), and certain cancers.[15] Chronic disease is now the foremost cause of global mortality, accounting for nearly 70% of deaths.[16] A well-established body of research tells us that healthy, plant-based food choices confer substantial benefit, offering protection against these illnesses.[17]

While both climate and health-related threats are certainly great, there is also much reason for optimism within our society.  The link between eating patterns, carbon footprint, and personal health provides us with an opportunity to make a significant impact in terms of our everyday food choices. We can choose to consume more whole, plant-based foods (fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, tubers and whole grains) on a daily basis, in order to reduce our impact on the climate and simultaneously improve personal health.

Citations

[1] NASA. (2017). NASA, NOAA Data Show 2016 Warmest Year on Record Globally [Press release].

[2] IPCC. (2014b). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/

[3] Watts, N., Adger, W. N., Agnolucci, P., Blackstock, J., Byass, P., Cai, W., . . . Costello, A. (2015). Health and climate change: policy responses to protectpublic health. The Lancet, 386(10006), 1861-1914. doi:10.1016/s01406736(15)60854-6

[4] GISTEMP, T. (2017). GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP).  Retrieved from  https://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/

[5] IPCC. (2014a). Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment

[6] Scarborough, P., Appleby, P. N., Mizdrak, A., Briggs, A. D. M., Travis, R. C., Bradbury, K. E., & Key, T. J. (2014). Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meateaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change, 125(2), 179-192.

[7] Williams, A., Audsley, E., & Sandars, D. (2006). Determining the environmental burdens and resource use in the production of agricultural and horticultural commodities.

[8] FAO. (2013). Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation

[9] IPCC. (2014b). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/

[10] Berners-Lee, M., Hoolohan, C., Cammack, H., & Hewitt, C. N. (2012). The relative greenhouse gas impacts of realistic dietary choices. energy policy, 43, 184-190.

[11] Bellarby, J., Tirado, R., Leip, A., Weiss, F., Lesschen, J. P., & Smith, P. (2013). Livestock greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation potential in Europe. Global Change Biology, 19(1), 3-18.

[12] Carlsson-Kanyama, A., & González, A. D. (2009). Potential contributions of food consumption  patterns to climate change. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 89(5), 1704S-1709S.

[13] Carlsson-Kanyama, A., & González, A. D. (2009). Potential contributions of food consumption patterns to climate change. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 89(5), 1704S-1709S.

[14] Scarborough, P. et al. (2014). Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change, 125(2), 179-192.

[15] Melina, V., Craig, W., & Levin, S. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J.Acad.Nutr.Diet. 116(12), 1970-1980.

[16] World Health Organization. (2014a). Global status report on non-communicable diseases 2014. (9241564857)

[17] Melina, V., Craig, W., & Levin, S. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(12), 1970-1980.

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Author: Anna DeMello

Anna is a Nutritionist currently working in NZ. She is a Canadian-trained, and registered, R.D.  She is the co-founder of Plant-Based Living Initiative and has a strong interest in chronic disease prevention and reversal!