Ever since Frances Moore Lappé wrote “Diet for a Small Planet” in 1971, the idea that a vegetarian diet could benefit the environment while reducing global food scarcity has been a topic of research, discussion and debate. As with many dietary philosophies founded on concerns for health, the environment, or both, Lappé’s raises a question: How absolute do you have to be? Or, in this case, if eating a plant-based diet is better for the planet and better for health, how plant-based do you need it to be?
A study published in May in the journal Food Policy looked at the environmental impact of the food system and found that household food purchases generate an estimated 16 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. The average household’s weekly food purchases generate the same amount of greenhouse gases as driving 174 miles in an average personal vehicle. The foods that contributed to the most greenhouse gas emissions — those with the largest “carbon footprint” — were beef, pork and other red meat. (No, pork is not “the other white meat.”) In a distant second, with half the carbon footprint, were fresh vegetables and melons, followed closely by cheese. Milk and other dairy products, poultry, and bread and baked goods fell a little further back, before things really started to taper off.
Did I lose you at fresh vegetables? While meat’s large carbon footprint is due largely to farming, in part because livestock produce methane gas as part of their digestive process, the carbon footprint of fresh vegetables and melons grows exponentially during long-haul transportation in refrigerated trucks. Melons are the fruit outliers — other fresh fruits, along with tree nuts, have a relatively modest footprint.
Households with higher education levels — which generally correspond with higher socioeconomic status — had food purchases with a larger carbon footprints and spent, on average, nearly nine times as much on food as households with the lowest carbon footprints. Neither group appeared to have the healthiest diets — those with higher footprints and larger budgets spent more on meat, along with fats, oils, condiments and sugars — while those with the smallest footprints and smaller budgets spent more on refined grains, alcohol and sugary drinks. That may be more evidence that moderation is the way to go.
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Here are some ways to reduce your carbon footprint through the food choices you make:
Reduce meat and dairy. Reduce doesn’t have to mean eliminate. Meat and dairy are excellent sources of protein and essential nutrients, so if you enjoy these foods and feel good when you eat them, continue to include them in your diet. But many people eat more red meat than is recommended for good health. If all — or most — typical eaters reduced their meat and dairy intake by swapping a few servings a week for plant-based protein foods with low carbon footprints — like beans, lentils and soy foods — we could have a large collective impact. So if you’ve been meaning to observe “Meatless Monday” but never quite followed through, there’s no time like the present.
Buy local vegetables and melons. Vegetables are a cornerstone of a nutrient-rich diet, and their footprint shrinks when they don’t have to be transported very far.
Reduce packaging. Broccoli has a small carbon footprint, but broccoli florets packaged in a bag or plastic container have a much larger footprint than a whole head of broccoli. It’s the packaging that makes a difference.