Eating for the Planet: Diet for a Climate CrisisMar 31, 2022 ● By Sheila Julson
What we choose to put on our plates influences not only our physical health, but also the health of the environment. While much of the climate conversation focuses on the burning of fossil fuels, commercial food production—particularly livestock—uses large amounts of land, water and energy. Wasted food contributes to approximately 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Leigh Prezkop, food loss and waste specialist for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), says agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water use, while pasture and crop land accounts for about 50 percent of the Earth’s habitable land.
“The environmental impacts begin with the soil,” Prezkop explains. “Soil that’s depleted of nutrients loses its ability to capture carbon and produce nutrient-rich foods. The long chain continues with the processing and packaging of that food, and then transporting it to grocery store shelves and, eventually, to the consumer’s home.”
Eat Less Meat
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change, argues author, screenwriter and playwright Glen Merzer in his latest book, Food Is Climate: A Response to Al Gore, Bill Gates, Paul Hawken & the Conventional Narrative on Climate Change. “When we have 93 million cattle farmed in the U.S. and 31 billion animals farmed globally each year, they create mountains of waste,” says Merzer, a dedicated vegan of 30 years. “That waste infiltrates water supplies and causes contamination, such as E. coli outbreaks, in foods like lettuce and tomatoes that are grown downstream.”
He adds that cows belch methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and that grass-fed cows belch even more of it than grain-fed, feedlot cows. In addition, nitrogen fertilizers used to grow animal feed run into waterways. Overfishing and ocean warming threaten populations of phytoplankton, which sequester carbon dioxide and seed clouds. Deforestation to create grazing land may be the single greatest future threat to our climate because forests also sequester carbon and provide a home for diverse flora and fauna.
Make Simple Swaps
Prezkop emphasizes that despite these problems with the industrial food chain, changing the way we produce food is also the solution. The WWF works with suppliers to educate and promote regenerative production practices. On the consumer side, changing the way food is produced can be achieved by changing people’s dietary demands.
“We don’t prescribe people to eat a certain way. We do believe different people and cultures have different dietary needs,” she says. “The global north eats a lot of meat, so we do recommend a plant-forward diet while still incorporating animal proteins, depending on individual dietary needs.”
Merzer argues that we have little control over fossil fuel burning, but we can control our diets. He promotes plant-based eating as a primary solution to climate change. Changing mindsets about “normal” traditions, such as having hamburgers on the Fourth of July or turkey on Thanksgiving, can be difficult, but achievable with the planet at stake, he says.
Sophie Egan, founder of Full Table Solutions and author of How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good For You, Others, and the Planet, advises to start small by looking at the foods eaten most frequently and identifying ways to make simple swaps. “If you have toast with butter every morning, that could be changed to a nut butter. A sandwich with cold cuts every day for lunch, that can be replaced with a roasted vegetables and hummus sandwich or an avocado sandwich. You can still eat something in a familiar form, but replace ingredients with lower-emissions options,” she says.
If someone is intimidated by switching to an all plant-based diet, a flexitarian option emphasizing foods from the plant kingdom while enjoying meat only occasionally may be more sustainable throughout a person’s lifetime. Her book contains a “protein scorecard” from the World Resources Institute that lists animal and plant sources in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein from the worst offenders to the least, with beef (along with goat and lamb) being at the top.
Prezkop recommends eating a wide variety of foods. “Currently, 75 percent of food produced is from 12 plant species and five animal species, despite that there are thousands of varieties. This means there’s less diversity happening in the field. Diversity helps with regeneration and healthy soils. Producing the same crops over and over means there’s no crop rotation and no diversity happening, leading to degraded soils and deforestation to produce more of the same crop.”
Egan adds that diets that are over-reliant on just a few food sources like corn, wheat, rice and soy threaten the Earth and can lead to food insecurity. “Think of it as risk management with a financial portfolio: We have a diversified portfolio of foods available to feed a growing population, but as the climate warms, extreme weather events threaten yields because lack of fresh water and unhealthy soil threaten the planet and, ultimately, food production.”
Eating food that is as close as to its original state as possible is better for the planet. “The more food is processed, the more resources it took to get it to market,” Prezkop notes.
Cut Food Waste
Prezkop says approximately 40 percent of the food produced globally is lost while still on the farm or further up the supply chain. “When food is wasted, we’re not just throwing away food, but everything it took to produce that food is also wasted—the water, the fertilizer and the land.”
A recent WWF report entitled Driven To Waste cites new data indicating that food waste contributes to approximately 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions—nearly twice the emissions produced annually by all the cars in the U.S. and Europe.
Egan suggests using a shopping list; impulse buys can be forgotten and are prone to spoiling. Keeping food visible by putting fruits and vegetables front and center ensures they won’t be forgotten. Leftovers can be kept from languishing by designating a section of the refrigerator for food to eat first or a day of the week to eat leftovers for dinner. “You can freeze just about anything,” Egan says, from leftover bread to cheese, which can be shredded before frozen. Even scrambled eggs can be poured into a freezer container to use later. (For more ideas, check out SaveTheFood.com and Dana Gunders’ Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook.)
Nonprofits throughout the country are creating solutions to divert food waste from the landfills. Keep Austin Fed, a nonprofit comprised of mostly volunteers, helps neighbors experiencing food insecurity by redistributing wholesome, nutritious, surplus food from any food-permitted business. Volunteers pick up leftover food from urban gardens, rural farms, grocery stores and caterers serving area tech firms. All prepared food accepted and redistributed is handled by licensed food handlers. Executive Director Lisa Barden says that Keep Austin Fed redistributed 982,428 pounds of food, or the equivalent of 818,695 meals, in 2021, thus keeping it out of the waste stream.
Similarly missioned organizations exist nationwide. Food Rescue US, with 40 locations in 20 states, provides assistance and even a dropoff/pickup app for people starting local groups. Since its founding in 2011, it has provided 85 million meals and kept 109 million pounds of excess food out of landfills. Its website offers a potent plea: “Fight Hunger. Help the Planet. Be the Rescue.”
Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine.