You’ve probably heard by now that this week, the UN’s scientific panel released a terrifying new report about the far-reaching effects of climate change. The apocalyptic report describes a world of devastating food shortages, ravaging wildfires, and widespread die-off of coral reefs and other wildlife—and, most chillingly, it asserts that these changes will occur sooner than anticipated, playing out over the course of the next few decades.
Written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies, the meticulous report is nevertheless likely to land with a thud on the desk of President Trump, who has made numerous comments in the past denying the seriousness of climate change.
While the current administration has rolled back environmental initiatives, you can make a difference. Nearly every lifestyle choice we make impacts our carbon footprint—our small but significant effect on the greenhouse gas emissions that warm our climate—including the way we eat.
Here, we’ve compiled a guide to cooking, snacking, and shopping in the age of climate change, in an effort to make less of an impact on the Earth we inhabit. For guidance, we spoke with Dr. Rebecca Boehm of the University of Connecticut’s Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy, an author of the report “A Comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from US Household Food Choices,” published in the journal Food Policy in June. Get ready to embrace your inner vegetarian: her number-one recommendation is to eat less meat.
Eat Less Meat
According to the findings of Boehm’s study, households that spent a significant portion of their food budget on beef, chicken, pork, and other meats generated more greenhouse gas emissions than households that ate less meat. The worst culprit, Boehm says, is beef, which requires intensive usage of resources—land, water—to produce.
“Beef, in particular, is very carbon-intensive food.”
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the meat industry generates nearly one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change worldwide—more than the entire transportation sector.
Time to embrace Meatless Mondays, Boehm says: “Shifting towards more plant-based foods is an excellent way to cut down on emissions.”
By now, it’s been pretty well-proven that organically grown crops provide more nutrients than their conventionally raised alternatives. But apart from health, there’s another good reason to shift your spending power towards organic fruits and veggies: They’re less taxing on the environment. Conventionally grown food is typically sprayed with nitrogen-based fertilizers, which are not only produced in factories that are powered by fossil fuels, but also produce nitrous oxide, which—in addition to being fun to huff out of whipped cream canisters if you’re a ne’er-do-well suburban teenager—is a greenhouse gas about 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
“The use of nitrogen fertilizers contributes to the nitrogen cycle and releases N20,” says Boehm. “Anything that can reduce nitrogen outputs is a good way to curb emissions.”
While organic fertilizers, like animal manure, also contain nitrogen, these fertilizers are slower to break down and are more gentle on the environment as they do so. So stash away a few extra dollars to spring for those dope organic avocados and make a guac you can feel pious about.
…Even Better, Eat Organic and Local
When you hear about greenhouse gas emissions, you probably think about transportation: all the gas-guzzling planes, trucks and cars that crisscross the world and the country 24 hours a day. In 2016, the transportation sector accounted for 28 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. And do you know what a lot of those planes, trucks and cars are carrying? Food.
In their report, Boehm and her coauthors found that the share of emissions coming from the transport of food depended heavily on the type of food. But one thing that was clear to them was that fruits and vegetables were the worst offenders.
“Fruits and vegetables are typically transported with refrigeration,” Boehm says.
Refrigerated vehicles make an outsized contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, a factor that becomes more important when you think about how far the food has to travel. Many of the food crops produced in North America are grown in areas such as California and Mexico, covering many miles to reach destinations all over the US.
A better option, Boehm says, is to look for locally grown produce in farmers markets, which typically host vendors who grow within a 50-mile radius. “It’s best to purchase local fruits and vegetables to avoid the larger carbon footprint that comes with transportation.”
Don't Waste Food—and When You Do, Compost It
In the US, we waste about 330 million pounds of food every day, the equivalent of about a pound a person per day. When we throw out uneaten food, all the resources that went into raising it—all the water, all those pesticides and herbicides, all the gas used to transport it to our tables—is wasted too. So if you want to cut down on your environmental impact, consider shopping smarter, purchasing smaller amounts of fruits and vegetables—studies show that these foods are the most likely to end up in the trash after wilting away in some forgotten corner of the fridge—and make sure to prioritize eating what you do buy.
When you have to chuck uneaten food, the best possible option for its disposal is through composting. Tossed food ends up in landfills, where it emits a potent methane gas that is 28 to 36 percent more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Unlike landfills, which are oxygen-poor environments that encourage the development of methane, composting is an aerobic process and does not produce methane. So save up those banana peels and haul ‘em to your local green market or community garden, or start your own system at home.
Eat the Right Kind of Fish
Most commercially fished species are predators—think tuna, cod, and swordfish. In a 2016 report, scientists demonstrated that the removal of predator species from the waters, and the resulting bloom of smaller fish and plankton, actually leads to an increase of carbon dioxide production.
The reasons are complicated and rely on understanding of terms like “biomass” and “respiration,” but suffice it to say that when you dine on the big dogs (er, fish) at the top of the food chain, you’re contributing to climate change. Instead, load up on sustainable small-fish species including sardines and mackerel, and shellfish such as clams and mussels.
Cut Down on Packaged Foods
We’ve previously detailed on MUNCHIES how packaged, prepared foods are destroying our health and contributing to epidemics such as diabetes and obesity. If you needed further incentive to ditch your plastic-swaddled granola bars and kale chips, consider the link between fossil fuels and single-use plastics.
Conventional plastic is made from fossil fuels, and is a product of the oil and gas industry, which spews the potent greenhouse gases methane, ethane and propane into the environment. After it’s thrown out (most plastics do not get recycled), it ends up in our oceans, where it chokes out marine species and breaks down into “microplastics” that re-enter the food chain and, eventually, our bodies. For your own health, and that of the planet, think about reducing your intake of pre-wrapped, single-serving items like bottles of water and soda, energy bars and bags of chips.
Just Spend Less on Food
One of the key findings of the report that Boehm helped author was that the more a person spends on food, the more greenhouse gas emissions she generates. Importantly, income level is an excellent predictor of emissions; the more educated and affluent a shopper is, the researchers found, the larger her carbon footprint. But people who earn more, and learn more, are also in the best position to significantly alter their shopping habits to be more informed and less wasteful, Boehm says.
“They have more flexibility, they have more money, and they can make better choices.”
So let's all make some better choices, for ourselves and for each other.