My Turn: Eating in the climate crisis era

By RUSS VERNON-JONES

Published: 02-16-2023 8:24 PM

This month I want to look at a very personal topic that we all encounter daily — food. What we eat, and don’t eat, impacts climate change. The diets of people around the world affect climate change.

Increasing numbers of people in the U.S. are eating diets that include more plant-based foods. A recent survey found 63% making efforts to eat less red meat. Many are eating more plant-based foods because a plant-based diet is healthier and the best way to avoid heart disease (according to a review of research studies published in Cardiovascular Research).

Increasing numbers of people are turning to more plant-based foods to help the environment. A diet made up mostly of foods from plants is both healthier and better for the climate than the traditional family diet in the U.S.

What does this term “plant-based” mean? Eating a plant-based diet (also called a “plant-rich” diet) doesn’t mean you must be vegan or even completely vegetarian. A plant-based diet is one where most of the foods come from plants, such as vegetables, beans, nuts, and fruits, rather than from animals (meat, poultry and dairy). Such a diet can include modest amounts of fish, eggs, poultry and dairy, and occasionally meat, as long as most of the food comes from plants.

Many people are eating more lentils, beans, quinoa, nuts, tofu, seitan and tempeh — all good protein sources. Some are turning to meat alternatives such as the Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat products, and others. Sales of non-dairy milks made from almonds, soy, oats and peas are increasing steadily.

Meat production causes greenhouse gas emissions in two major ways. The first is that ruminant animals, like beef cattle, produce methane, a greenhouse gas about 80 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, primarily through belching and farting. While it may be hard to believe, if cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (behind China and the United States).

The 60 billion land animals currently being raised for meat cause about one-fifth of all global greenhouse gas emissions, second only to fossil fuels, and currently uses almost 50% of all agricultural land in the world.

Meat production also causes emissions by driving deforestation. The demand for meat around the world is growing, resulting in forests being cut down for grazing and for growing feed crops. This leads to emissions from clearing and burning forests and to a loss of the carbon sequestration provided by all those trees. Deforestation for cattle ranching has been a major cause of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Raising animals for meat currently uses almost 50% of all agricultural land in the world.

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Researchers have looked at the emissions associated with producing 100 grams of protein from different sources. Beef production causes, by far, the greatest emissions compared to other common sources of protein. Lamb is the next highest, followed, in order, by cheese, milk, pork, poultry and eggs. Far less emissions result from producing 100 grams of protein from grains, beans and lentils, peas and nuts.

The impact that could be achieved by large numbers of people shifting to plant-rich diets is so great that when the Drawdown Project calculated its effect, it ranked in the top four out of the 100 solutions they identified as most effective in reducing emissions. Because a plant-based diet requires less land and fewer resources to produce it, more people eating this way will also make it easier for the world to address the global hunger problem and feed everyone adequately.

For most of us, changing our diet is not easy. But gradual changes can make a difference. Are there some dishes you already eat and like that don’t have meat or dairy, but do have protein? If so, you could eat them more often. You might want to try some of the new brands of “vegan meats.” Some of them are surprisingly good. You might also find some other tasty new plant-based dishes and add them to your diet regularly. Some of my recent favorites are a quinoa and black bean bowl, and a homemade Indian dal with lentils and interesting spices.

There are various systemic changes and public education campaigns that would support transitioning the world to more plant-rich diets. But those of us who care about climate change, especially those of us in the wealthier countries, can make a difference individually right now. Every time we choose to eat a plant-based meal we reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We don’t need to be “perfect” in our food choices. Each small step we take makes a difference.

Russ Vernon-Jones of Amherst was principal of Fort River School for 18 years and is a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at russvj@gmail.com . He blogs regularly on climate justice at http://www.russvernonjones.org.]]>