While food systems are complicated, and research is still evolving on what the most environmentally-friendly diet is, experts mostly agree that cutting down on meat, and red meat in particular, is a better choice for the environment. This is because the production of red meat uses a lot of feed, water and land. Cows themselves also give off methane emissions (a harmful greenhouse gas).
For that reason, eating a vegan diet is likely to be best for the environment, say experts. According to a study published in 2017 in the journal Environmental Research Letters, red meat can have up to 100 times the environmental impact of plant based food. (According to some estimates, beef gives off more than six pounds of carbon dioxide per serving; the amount created per serving by rice, legumes carrots, apples or potatoes is less than half a pound.)
Eating a vegetarian or pescetarian diet are also likely to be better for the environment than a diet which includes a lot of meat. Each of these, however, depend on exactly what you are eating, and how much of it. If you replace that meat with dairy, for example, your emissions could rise again. “Deep net fishing can emit as much as beef,” said Marco Springmann, a senior researcher on environmental sustainability and public health at the University of Oxford. Following national health guidelines, with further reductions in meat, fish and dairy (this is similar to a Mediterranean diet) is a good option too, Dr. Springmann said. These diets can also have health benefits.
Overall, eating low down the food chain as often as you can is a probably a good way to reduce your carbon footprint and stay healthy, say experts. That means filling your plate with vegetables, fruits, grains and beans. For meat-lovers, even swapping carbon-intensive meats like beef and lamb with chicken can make a difference. Better still, swap a few meals per-week to vegan or vegetarian. This protein card can help you make climate (and wallet) friendly choices at the grocery store.
Weighing Your Options
When it comes to food, most greenhouse gas emissions happen during production, rather than transportation: What you eat is more important than where it comes from. But eating local can still make a difference.
Fewer food-miles can mean fewer emissions. The complicating factor in eating locally happens when you start to consider how the food got to you, not just from how far away it came. “This ‘eat local’ argument, I would take it with a pinch of salt,” Dr. Springmann said. Tomatoes brought a short distance to a farmers market by truck, or shipped further to the grocery store by a train, could release similar emissions. (The transportation you take to get your tomatoes, and bring them home, also matters.)
What about local meat versus imported vegetables? Eating only locally grown food for one year would save the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving 1,000 miles, but eating just one vegetarian meal a week for a year saves 160 miles more than that, according to one study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon.
How about organic? You might choose organic if you prefer to eat produce grown with fewer chemical pesticides, but when it comes to reducing your carbon footprint, you’re better off shifting to low-impact, plant-based foods, according to a recent study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The study found that organic systems use less energy than conventional ones, but they often require more land and, therefore, emit similar greenhouse gas emissions.
This is a big one: on average, Americans waste around 40 percent of the food they buy.
Luckily, there are simple solutions to lower your food waste (and these tips will save you money, too.):
• Take stock. Organize your fridge regularly to check on what you already have, and make grocery shopping lists before you go to the store to prevent buying things you don’t need.
• Be wary of bulk. Low-priced food might seem like a good deal, but it’s not if you don’t end up eating it before it goes bad.
• Plan. Don’t cook more food than you can eat. Account for the right amount of food for the number of people eating, and adapt recipes to your needs.
• Get creative. Reuse leftovers instead of tossing them.
• Freeze. Extend the life of your food, including additional portions, as well as produce like fresh herbs, by freezing them properly.
• Doggie bag. Take home half of oversized restaurant servings.
What to Eat On. Skip the disposable dishes and wash your dinnerware instead. Washing dishes, whether it is by hand or in a dishwasher, is likely to be more environmentally friendly than using disposable ones (assuming your dishwasher is energy efficient). If you do need to use disposable plates, bowls and cutlery, there are climate-friendly options (look for compostable or biodegradable options). If you order takeout, wash and reuse the plastic containers that food often comes in.
Read the entire article by Livia Albeck-Ripka in the New York Times here.