7 Tips for Climate-Wise Eating

By Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer
August 21, 2020

As California faces record-breaking heat waves and another devastating wildfire season, climate change is top of mind for all of us. What we eat and how we grow our food have significant impacts on the climate. Food production is responsible for one-quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with the average American diet generating close to as many emissions as energy-related emissions.

Food can also be part of the climate solution: while livestock production is the highest in emissions, fruits and vegetables are the lowest. More than 90% of Americans are willing to eat more fruits and vegetables for health reasons, but many people remain unaware or misinformed about how their food choices impact the climate. Here are some tips for climate-friendly eating that is good for the planet and your health.

Eat more veggies, fruits, and nuts.

Project Drawdown lists choosing plant-rich diets as the third most impactful individual action for reducing emissions (preventing food waste is number one). Plants are the most climate-friendly foods available, with 10 to 50 times lower emissions than animal products. Nuts can even have negative carbon impact because most grow on trees that sequester carbon. Beans, peas, nuts, and tofu provide protein that is healthier, more eco-friendly, and more affordable than animal protein. Shopping at the farmers market is one way to get more plant-based foods into your diet, and there are plenty of tasty, easy vegetarian recipes available online and in cookbooks.

Eat less (and better raised) meat.

Reducing your meat consumption—and opting for pasture-raised rather than industrial meat—can be one of the best ways to shrink your diet’s climate impact. Meat and other animal products account for more than half of GHG emissions in our diets but provide only one-fifth of the calories. Beef and lamb are particularly harmful, accounting for half of all farmed animal emissions.

Why do livestock produce so many emissions? It takes more land and energy to produce a pound of animal protein than plant protein. Nitrogen-based fertilizers used to grow livestock feed produce nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. Stomach bacteria of cows and sheep, released through their burps, produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon.

How and where livestock is raised can have different climate impacts. For example, beef from Latin America has a greater climate footprint due to deforestation. In the U.S., some ranchers are adopting sustainable practices that significantly reduce the emissions per pound of beef. Grass-fed beef may have less impact because grazing stimulates grass to grow deeper roots, sequestering carbon in the soil (however, grass-fed cattle often take longer to put on weight, which can mean more methane emissions).

You don’t have to become a vegetarian to make a difference; small efforts by many people can result in a large cumulative impact. If Americans cut a quarter pound of beef from their weekly diets⁠—just one hamburger⁠—the climate impact would be equal to removing 10 million cars off the road a year.

Support organic and sustainable agriculture.

Eating sustainably farmed food is part of a climate-friendly diet. The Rodale Institute estimates that converting 10,000 medium-sized farms to organic production would be comparable to taking one million cars off the road. Sustainable farming practices include converting to certified organic, growing cover crops, and using compost instead fossil fuel-based fertilizers to create healthy soils that sequester carbon. These practices also support biodiversity by providing forage and habitat for insects and birds, which are essential to healthy, climate-friendly ecosystems. Ask your farmer at the farmers market about their sustainability practices, such as using renewable energy and conserving water through methods like dry farming.

Go easy on cheese, and choose wisely.

Milk consumption is declining, as people are switching to plant-based milks from almond, soy, and oats, but dairy still accounts for 4% of global emissions (beef accounts for 6%). Milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese typically have smaller climate footprints, however, cheeses like cheddar and mozzarella require 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese, resulting in higher footprints than chicken or pork. Go easy on the cheese and support dairies that have adopted pasture-based regenerative farming practices, which build organic matter in the soil and sequester carbon, to reduce your impact.

Select climate-smart seafood.

Seafood can be a good protein alternative to meat, depending on the type. Mollusks, like oysters, mussels, clams, and scallops, are climate-friendly choices. Oyster and mussel farms also grow kelp, which sequesters “blue carbon” in the oceans. Steer clear of shrimp; extra energy is used to harvest wild shrimp, and carbon-sequestering mangrove forests are cleared to create shrimp farms. Aquaculture can produce climate-friendly seafood but not always, so make sure it is certified as sustainably produced. For example, farmed salmon has a lower climate impact than chicken or pork, but farmed catfish and tilapia can have a larger impact than beef. Check Seafood Watch or the Seafood Carbon Emission Tool.

Buy fresh, local, and in season.

Did you know that food in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to your plate? The supply chain, which includes processing, packaging, retail, and transportation, accounts for 18% of the emissions generated by the world’s food production. Although food labels rarely identify shipping methods, highly perishable foods sourced from long distances are most likely to arrive via air, resulting in the highest GHG emissions.

Eating local and in season means avoiding products that must be transported long distances from other parts of the world (such as tomatoes in the middle of winter). In California, we are fortunate to have a bounty of fresh produce year round, and many farms produce asparagus, strawberries, and other items that often arrive by plane in other areas of the country. When farmers sell through local distribution channels, food requires less energy-intensive processing and transportation, reducing emissions (the average distance farms travel to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is about 100 miles).

Fight food waste.

What’s the biggest way you can take a bite out of climate change? Preventing food waste. Approximately 40% of food in America is wasted along the food chain. All the energy used to produce that food generates GHG emissions, but without providing nutrition. In addition, food waste often ends up in landfill where it releases methane. Global food waste emissions are significant, accounting for one-quarter of emissions from food production and 10% of overall emissions. Reducing waste by shopping wisely, eating leftovers, freezing foods, and composting is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint. For tips to help ensure that food ends up on your plate, not in the garbage, check out our guide to reducing food waste.

Looking for ways to impact through food?

12 Tips for Reducing Food Waste

10 Tips for Drought-Friendly Eating

10 Reasons to Support Farmers Markets

10 Ways Farmers Can Fight Climate Change

10 Ways Farmers Are Saving Water

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