Many vegetarians and vegans avoid meat because of the ethics of eating animals. Today, as the planet warms, people are taking a similar ethical stance with regard to the environmental impact of their food choices. There now exist “climatarians” as well as “sustainatarians” and “reducetarians”— all people who have elected to fight climate change with a fork.
Climate-centered diets don’t involve strict rules so much as mindfulness about food production, such as where food comes from, and where it goes. The core principles involve eating locally, reducing meat consumption or choosing lower-impact meats, and eliminating food waste wherever possible.
This approach to food is grounded in sobering facts. Agriculture and related land clearing and management contribute one-fifth of greenhouse-gas emissions around the globe.
According to James Gerber, PhD, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Global Landscapes Initiative, a climatarian approach can make a difference. “There’s no one intervention that’s going to magically fix everything,” says Gerber. “There’s lots and lots of small ones.” And little changes add up.
These are Gerber’s recommendations for more climate-friendly eating:
- Eat “Land-Efficient” Foods
Focus a big portion of your diet on “land-efficient” foods. These are crops, such as grains, vegetables, and fruit, that offer high yields with smaller amounts of inputs such as fertilizer or water. Gerber especially appreciates legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans, because they also help fix nitrogen in the soil. “‘Fix’ means the process of taking nitrogen from an inert gas and putting it into a form that plants can use,” Gerber explains. This helps prevent nitrous-oxide emissions that lead to atmospheric-ozone loss.
- Eat Less Feedlot Beef
Not only do feedlot cows increase methane and require vast amounts of water (1 pound of feedlot beef takes 1,800 gallons of water) and other resources, but they also eat a lot of grain.
Two-thirds of the grain farmers grow is sent to feed animals. Cutting down on red meat helps increase the total grains available to humans and, notes Gerber, helps “decrease the conversion of natural lands to agriculture.”
But not all animal foods are as resource-intensive as beef, says Gerber. Chicken, for example, requires far less water and feed. “There’s a big range of efficiencies and land use associated with each,” he says. “So if you can go from beef to chicken, that’s a big step.”
Among animal foods, beef and lamb are the most resource-intensive, followed by farm-grown fish, pork, and chicken, and finally dairy products like eggs, milk, and cheese.
- Cut Down on Food Waste
Reducing food waste — from grocery stores, restaurants, and individual households — supports the climate in many ways. Food waste is another methane producer, and wasted food can’t be eaten — which means still more food must be grown.
“Around a quarter to a third of all food winds up being wasted,” says Gerber. This is enough to feed 1.9 billion people. In North America, more than half of waste comes from buying more food than we use.
He acknowledges that some food waste is inevitable, but there are certain foods we should be especially careful about. “If you’re going to waste food, don’t waste the meat,” says Gerber.
The vast quantity of resources meat takes to produce make wasting it especially . . . well, wasteful. (To prevent this, try freezing meat as soon as you buy it, and only making as much as you know you can eat in a meal or two.)
- Buy Local and Organic
Buying produce from local farms helps the climate by shrinking the carbon footprint of transportation. Bonus: It also helps support local economies, and the food often tastes better — because it wasn’t built to travel.
Buying organic is also helpful to the planet. While Gerber notes that organic farming still has significant “yield gaps”— fewer crops produced compared with conventional practices — when fertilizer isn’t a significant factor in yields (as with legumes), the gaps are negligible.
Organic farming is also helpful for what it doesn’t do, namely, add more fertilizers and pesticides to the environment. These chemicals have been implicated in the growing “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico (an oxygen-deprived area where fish can’t survive, caused by farm-fertilizer runoff) as well as the reduction of bee populations, among other things.
- Eat Drought-Hardy Crops
Farming accounts for 90 percent of freshwater use in the United States. This has become a divisive issue in states like California, where agriculture consumes 80 percent of the state’s water. Almonds, an especially thirsty crop, use 10 percent of that water, even as the state faces increasingly long droughts. Focusing your diet on legumes and local vegetables can help reduce demand for these thirstier plants.