Could mass diet change reverse climate change?
What’s for dinner? Those three little words are laden with more importance than simply arguing with the kids, our partners, or even ourselves. Our planet is warming, the seas are rising, Arctic permafrost is disappearing, deserts are expanding, and biodiversity is woefully withering. Frankly, it’s terrifying! A report by the UK government wants to introduce taxes on salt and sugar and have the NHS prescribe vegetables.
The little daily decisions we make about what deliciousness to fill our faces with have consequences for our world (and our health), whether we like it or not.
Changing our light bulbs and taking our own bags to the shops with us is a start but food production is the second-biggest contributor to climate change, after the energy industry.
“The global food system is the single biggest contributor to biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought, freshwater pollution and the collapse of aquatic wildlife.” National Food Strategy Review, 2019
The clever boffins who study global warming have found that limiting or stopping our planet from heating up like a fan assisted oven, is entirely impossible without changes to how we eat.
Yep, we know, changing the world's entire food system to save the planet is a big blinkin’ task and one that’s going to need new laws, regulations, and corporate responsibility on a mammoth scale. But individuals matter too – more than we might realise.
First, let’s look at exactly how food produces greenhouse-gas
We often hear “eat local” and whilst that might seem to be a rather sensible recommendation it’s actually one of the most misguided pieces of advice when it comes to global warming. Eating locally would only help if transport was responsible for a large chunk of food’s final carbon footprint. Alas, this isn’t the case. What we eat is far more important than where our food travels. Across Europe, food transport is responsible for around 6% of emissions, whilst meat, dairy, and eggs account for a whopping 83%.
Have a nosey at this infographic from Our World in Data.
Meat is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions across our food supply. This is for a few different reasons. Firstly, plants turn carbon dioxide and other harmful gases into glorious, life-giving oxygen. Animal agriculture is the number one offender of deforestation and every day around 80,000 acres of rainforest – along with 135 plant, animal, and insect species – are destroyed. Wiped-out. Obliterated. Since 1970 more than 90% of the land that’s been cleared has been used for livestock grazing.
Methane is another potent greenhouse gas, yep, we’re talking about farts, burps, and poop. Animals raised for food produce huge amounts of methane during their digestive processes and afterwards their manure continues to release gas. Cows produce more methane than any other food source and with an estimated 1.5 billion cows on the planet, that’s a whole lot of methane!
And then there’s the issue of water. Cows in particular are thirsty beasts. Plus, it takes an enormous amount of water to grow crops for animals to eat. Put it this way, a single dairy cow drinks 30 to 50 gallons of water a day – more if the weather is hot. A 2018 study based on the global milk supply showed that an astonishing 628 litres of water are required to produce just 1 litre of cow milk. FYI, it takes 28 litres of water to produce 1 litre of soya milk.
And that’s not all.
Evidence shows that environmental damage regularly exposes us to nasty new pathogens, making it more likely that humans will catch more animal diseases like COVID-19. Last year the UN warned about the rising risk, in particular linking it to the 260% increase in meat production in the last 50 years.
But what if I love steak?
There’s no judgement here for liking a nice, juicy steak but… and there is a ‘but’… we’re eating so much meat that it’s destroying our planet. And until time travel is invented (scratching your head at that one?) or Elon Musk sets up camp on Mars, this is the only home we have.
Professor Pete Smith (we love you Pete), a leading environmental scientist at Aberdeen University said:
“We’re not telling people to stop eating meat. In some places people have no other choice. But it’s obvious that in the West we’re eating far too much.”
Interestingly, Denmark has introduced official climate-friendly diet guidelines. According to the new guidelines, they’re recommending the reduction in consumption of meat from 500g to 350g a week.
Whilst PETA (the largest animal rights organisation in the world) advise we should all immediately shun meat and dairy and go vegan, that’s not always realistic or sustainable for everyone. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan and you’re reading this, we salute you! And if you’re not, then we have some top tips to eat less meat.
Meat-free Mondays are all the rage with posh restaurants offering vegetarian and vegan meals and recipes flooding the internet. How about turning this on its head and eating meat only on Mondays? Or if we can’t live without a Sunday roast, only on Sundays? If that’s a bit too drastic or sudden a change, perhaps try one meal a day meat-free, eating beef no more than once a week (which has the highest carbon footprint by far) or only eating meat when going out for a meal.
Get cosy with legumes
Beans, beans, are good for your heart. The more you eat, the more you… save the planet! Beans and lentils are versatile, inexpensive, have a low carbon footprint and are jam-packed with health benefits. They’re a great source of fiber, are low in fat, have absolutely no cholesterol, and contain antioxidants, amino acids, and essential vitamins and minerals. If you’re not used to eating beans introduce them gradually to avoid, erm, excessive wind.
Swap dairy milk for plant-based milk. Find vegetarian swaps for some of your favourite dishes or replace some of the meat with other ingredients. Chopped sautéed mushrooms make a lovely substitute for 1/3rd of the minced beef in burgers, mixed beans can take the place of half the meat in chilli-con-carne, and cooked grains can be swapped for some of the meat in stews (check out pearl barley, in our opinion its’s incredibly underrated). It’s a good rule of thumb to make sure vegetables fill up half our plates, so maybe we can choose a smaller portion of meat and embrace the veg.
Beef racks up to 105kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per 100g, while tofu usually produces less than 3.5kg. If you’ve been slow to jump aboard the tofu train, now might be the time to get to know this nutritious and massively versatile food. Tofu is a brilliant source of protein and contains all 9 essential amino acids. It doesn’t taste of much, but it has an amazing ability to take on the flavours of whatever it’s cooked with. In terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the best thing we can do is substitute meat for crop-based proteins (like chickpeas) so eat tofu in moderation.
Power up on flavour
Eating more plant-based meals doesn’t mean skimping on flavour. It’s amazing what a bit of soya sauce, tomato paste, or miso can do for flavour. Try different herbs and spices, pop a parmesan rind into a pan of veggie soup, add olives, capers, or chillies into pasta sauce. Something utterly magical happens to onions that are roasted in the oven with miso and butter - click here for the easy-peasy recipe and a few more.
There’s another change we can make to the way we eat that can have a hugely positive impact on global warming – reduce our food waste! The average household throws away around 30% of the food we buy! Keep an eye out for a future blog on this very topic.
Final thoughts: We all have our part to play in halting the devastating effects of global warming. What we eat is one of the most powerful drivers behind climate change and biodiversity loss. Experimenting with a more plant-based diet doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. We’ll gain many of the benefits even if we don’t shift to an entirely vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.