Scientists estimate that about 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from our food system. What we eat has a big impact on our changing climate. So, how as individuals can we make more sustainable food decisions? There are many different ways to reduce your impact, from buying in-season foods to reducing food waste to buying foods grown on regenerative farms. But there’s one adjustment that will have the biggest impact of all the food choices you can make: eating less meat and, specifically, red meat.
You may have heard this already, but we think it’s worth getting into some of the numbers to show why reducing meat intake can have such a dramatic impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Across the food system, GHGs can for the most part be broken down into the below seven categories:
‘Land Use Change’ and ‘Agricultural production’ (farm and animal feed) account for a whopping 71% of the total emissions related to our food system. The whole food system breaks down as follows:
- Agricultural production (farm and animal feed): 39% of emissions
- Land use change: 32% of emissions
- Post-retail (consumer preparation of food and end-of-life waste): 11% of emissions
- Processing: 3.5% of emissions
- Transportation: 4.8% of emissions
- Retail: 4% of emissions
- Packaging: 5.5% of emissions
Understanding that land use change and agricultural production are the biggest emitters in our food system, we should be asking the question: which foods have the largest effect on land use and agricultural production and on emissions overall? No matter how you cut it, either looking at total greenhouse gas emissions, emissions from land use change and production, greenhouse gas emissions per calorie or greenhouse gas emissions per unit of protein, meat and specifically red meat are the biggest emitters. This is how red meat compares to other common foods we eat (graphics courtesy of Our World in Data):
The study puts some of these numbers in context. Here are a couple powerful examples of the GHG impact of red meat:
- In a week, substituting less than one day's worth of calories from beef and dairy products for chicken, fish, eggs, or a plant-based alternative reduces GHG emissions more than buying all of your food locally.
- Producing 100 grams of protein from peas emits 90 times less GHG emissions than the same amount of protein from beef.
When you look at the data, it's clear that focusing on what we eat has the biggest impact on GHG emissions. That’s not to say that eating locally, focusing on farming practices and buying foods in sustainable packaging aren’t a good thing (they usually are). But eating less meat, and red meat in particular, has a far greater impact.
Link to data used in this blog.