What we eat is responsible for a whopping one-third of all global warming today. Global meat and dairy production together accounts for roughly 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, making the livestock industry worse for the climate than every one of the world’s planes, trains, and cars combined.
You might be thinking, “But we have to eat. We don’t have a choice the way we do for (ahem) flights to Paris.” Except we do. If we’re lucky, we choose what we eat three times a day. And we make choices as societies all the time when we decide what research to fund, which farms to subsidize, and what foods to serve in our schools and institutions.
So how do we change food and farming to help prevent catastrophic climate change? First, we need an absolute reduction in methane and nitrous oxide—gases with as much as 298 and 36 times the heat trapping power of carbon dioxide respectively—and food is key. To do this, we’ll have to slow, then reverse, the spread of the industrial livestock model into new markets around the globe.
We’ll also have to halt the growing demand for meat and dairy that’s sending soy for feed production soaring. And, we’ll need to dramatically reduce industrial farms’ use of synthetic fertilizers, the overuse of which releases significant nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.
We also must stop agribusiness from encroaching on forests and carbon-rich peatland, as it is with palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. As the processed foods industry increasingly turns to this relatively cheap palm oil, production is rising. Palm oil is now nearly ubiquitous in cookies, granola bars, and other processed foods. (Like your peanut butter pre-mixed? Thank palm oil). We need to reduce demand—for us consumers that means going for less processed fare—and call on suppliers to source only from sustainably harvested palm.
The biggest impact could come from reducing the amount of food we waste, which stands at a staggering 30 to 50 percent globally. This means those emissions associated with wasted food are contributing to the climate crisis while conferring no social benefit, but it also means food is adding up in landfills, where as it decomposes converts to the powerful greenhouse gas methane.
In fact, food is the single largest component of solid waste found in municipal landfills, according to the NRDC. That means addressing waste at home, ensuring that farmers have access to markets, and ending our obsession with picture-perfect produce.
At the heart of these solutions are farmers. By 2050, there will be 750 million peasant farmers—and they’re vital to securing a resilient food supply and ensuring that we store carbon in our soils, stressed Dr. Sonja Vermeulen, a leading food and climate expert who spoke at a recent climate change summit.
Meanwhile, those of us living in the United States and much of the industrialized world must radically change our diets, shifting away from diets filled with processed foods and loaded with industrial meat products toward whole foods and plant-centered fare. For those who eat meat, it means eating less and better: grass-fed beef, for instance, and organic-certified poultry and pork.
And so, there is a kind of glorious coincidence: Every one of the bold actions around food is also a step forward for farmers, communities and our health. Oh, and these changes can be delicious, too!