What’s the Most Climate-Friendly Way to Eat?

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If you’re concerned about your personal contributions to climate change, you may be looking for the most effective climate-friendly choices you can make in your daily life. Flying less and living car-free are great options — but you can also make a big difference by changing up your food choices.

Global greenhouse gas emissions (climate emissions) are rapidly warming the planet, causing more extreme weather events and changing the ocean. These emissions primarily come from burning fossil fuels. Other sources include landfills, land clearing and agriculture. 

Overall, around one third of all climate emissions are associated with the food we eat. Food production is a major driver of wildlife loss, as forests are cleared to make way for crops and livestock. Agricultural production is also water-intensive. In most parts of the world, over 70% of all freshwater is used for agricultural purposes.

The good news is that by adjusting food choices and eating habits, we can significantly minimize our environmental impact. So, how can you eat in a more climate-friendly way? And which food-related changes will have the greatest benefit for the environment? Here are a few tips to get started.

1. Eat Less Red Meat and Dairy

As a general rule of thumb, animal-based foods produce about twice the emissions of plant-based ones. And a large percentage of overall climate emissions come from red meat production. This is partly due to the carbon emissions from growing the grain to feed all those cows, and partly due to the methane gas cows give off. 

So, it may come as no surprise that the most significant way to reduce personal emissions related to food is to eat less meat and dairy. One study found that by cutting meat and dairy, an individual could reduce their food-related emissions by 73%

And a mostly plant-based diet is not only good for the planet — it can also be good for your health. For example, some of the longest-lived populations on earth generally follow a 95% plant-based lifestyle.

If you’re not ready to switch to a totally vegan diet, try eating just one plant-based meal per day. Even a smaller daily change can make a big difference over time.

2. Eat More Lentils and Beans

Beans and lentils are excellent plant-based sources of protein, fiber and other key nutrients — and they create much lower climate emissions than animal proteins. Lentils in particular have a very low level of emissions, with a carbon footprint 43 times lower than beef. They also need very little water to grow and don’t need any fertilizer, as they draw nitrogen from the air. 

There are many different types of beans and lentils to choose from. And as an added bonus, these foods are usually very inexpensive — especially if you buy them dried. If you’re just getting started cooking with these plant proteins, try red lentils. They’re one of the easiest and quickest types to cook, and they don’t need any pre-soaking.

3. Reduce Food Waste

How we plan our meals and dispose of uneaten food is also important, as around 8 to 10% of global climate emissions are linked to food waste. Around one-third of all food produced for people to eat ends up as waste — and more than half of that waste happens in households.

Preventing food waste at home is simple, but it does require some planning and preparation. Before going to the supermarket, try to plan your meals for the week in advance. It can also help to take a shopping list and buy only what you need. Eating leftovers and sharing your extra food with others can also help to ensure that no food goes to waste. 

Composting can also help. Composting any uneaten food avoids emissions from organic waste in landfills, and the nutrients from fruit and vegetable scraps can help nourish the soil.

4. Eat Local and Seasonal Produce

First, it’s important to note that eating less meat and more plants — no matter where those foods come from — will most likely have a much bigger climate impact than switching to local foods. That’s because a relatively small portion of global food-related climate emissions come from transporting food. 

But that said, shopping at your local farmers market and choosing to buy locally grown, seasonal products can help to reduce food miles and pollution from long-distance transport. And when you buy fruit and vegetables in season, you also avoid emissions from energy used to grow produce out of season, like lighting and heating for greenhouses. 

Buying local also supports your local economy, and can often get you tastier, fresher fruits and veggies. So it’s a win-win!

5. Look for Products Certified as Sustainable

Products with an environmental certification are more likely to operate responsibly. Some common food products and ingredients, like palm oil, have devastating impacts on the environment. However, there are certified sustainable palm oils that don’t contribute to deforestation, cause excessive emissions or harm endangered wildlife. If you’re in the U.S. or Canada, you can use this app to find sustainable palm oil products at the store.

Equally, certifications on fish products (like the Marine Stewardship Council or Seafood Watch) demonstrate sustainable fishing techniques or farming methods that result in lower climate emissions and avoid the depletion of fish stocks.

For more general food product sustainability rankings and recommendations, you can try out the HowGood app (or the GIKI app if you’re in the UK).

6. Grow Your Food

Growing food is a great way to lower climate emissions and reduce water use. And as a bonus, it doesn’t involve any plastic packaging. There are also health and well-being benefits, as gardening involves both physical activity and the opportunity to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. 

If you don’t have a garden or a balcony space, consider creating an indoor herb garden. Or you can check with your town or city government to see if there’s a community garden project in your area. Community gardens provide outdoor space to grow fresh fruit and vegetables, compost any food scraps and share seasonal harvests.

We can all do something each day to minimize our impact on the environment. Hopefully, these tips will help you consider the steps you can take towards climate-friendly food choices and eating more sustainably.