The Complex Associations between Diet and the Environment
Eating is an agricultural act, as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice, few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world.
-Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
With the COP 26 conference taking place at the end of last year, there was obviously lots of discussion around the issue of global climate change, and what we can all collectively do to reduce our carbon footprints. During the 12-day conference organized in Glasgow, UK, the majority of discussion and subsequent media attention was directed towards the move to end international support for fossil fuels and redirect funds to cleaner energy investments. Notable “achievements” included a declaration signed by more than 30 countries and development banks call for a halt to overseas funding for unabated fossil fuels by the end of 2022, pledges to reduce methane gas pollution, deforestation, and coal financing, and the completion of long-awaited rules on carbon trading.
While all of these issues related to reducing our collective greenhouse gas emissions are certainly important, the issue of agriculture and diet was relatively low-key during this round of climate talks. According to most estimates, the global food system is currently responsible for at least one-quarter of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions. From changes in land use, to industrial agricultural practices that emit carbon stored in the soil into the atmosphere, to the enormous distances that most food travels from farm to plate, every step along the supply chain of our globalized food system is responsible for an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, most experts consider that figure that is projected to increase unless major changes are implemented across the supply lines of our globalized food system. As our population continues to grow, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) believes that “satisfying the expected food and feed demand will require a substantial increase of global food production of 70 percent by 2050, involving an additional quantity of nearly 1 billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million tons of meat.”
Though most people consider it a given fact that extra food production will inevitably lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, the agricultural sector has an advantage over other carbon-emitting sectors of our economy. When done correctly, agriculture can actually capture or sequester the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere by storing it in the long-term fertility of the soil, instead of simply avoiding carbon emissions. Whereas most sectors aim for a “carbon zero” goal, holistic agricultural practices that enrich soil carbon content can become “carbon positive.”
Below, we take a quick look at some of the current challenges related to agriculture and climate change. We then address the “hot” issue of meat versus plant-based diets. Finally, we explain why localizing our diets and opting for more nutritious foods may very well hold the key to helping turn the agricultural and food sectors of our economy into a carbon “positive” sector.
The Current Challenges of our Food System and Climate Change
Let´s start with some statistics that point to the ballooning carbon footprint of agriculture and the globalized food industry.
- According to some estimates, if nothing is done to change how we grow and distribute our food, the increase in food system emissions alone threatens warming above the 1.5℃ threshold.
- The USDA reports that U.S. agriculture emitted an estimated 698 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent in 2018: 12.3 percent as carbon dioxide, 36.2 percent as methane, and 51.4 percent as nitrous oxide.
- The negative effects of global climate change could lead to significant declines in production of the main crops our globalized food system depends on. A recent NASA study determined that “maize crop yields are projected to decline 24%, while wheat could potentially see growth of about 17%.”
- An estimated 26 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted when one pound of feedlot beef is produced.
- It is estimated that agriculture is responsible for 75 percent of global deforestation.
Despite these ominous statistics, one senior scientist at the NGO Global Footprint Network believes that “the fork is the most powerful sustainability tool that individuals have.” What we eat, and how the food on our dinner plates is grown, is one of the most elemental factors governing our carbon footprint. For many people, reducing consumption of meat and other animal products is widely considered to be the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of food we put on our plates. Let´s turn our attention now to the frenzied argument around meat eating.
The Issue of Meat versus Plant-Based Diets: Engaging the Nuances
For most people, the connection between our carbon footprint and our diet is directly related to the amount of meat (and especially red meat) that we eat. The Vegan and Vegetarian movements have had enormous success in bringing to light the apparently enormous carbon footprint of beef in their argument for animal-free diets. For example, 2019 data states that for every gram of beef produced, 221 grams of carbon dioxide is emitted, and for every calorie from beef, 22 grams of carbon dioxide is emitted.
Similarly, livestock production is blamed for the enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions that come from changes in land use. Around the world, at least 50 percent of the Earth´s habitable land is dedicated to farmland, and much of that land is used for producing grains for livestock feed. Animal production, then, is said to be one of the main causes of the loss of tropical forest loss. To add even more insult to injury, the methane emissions from the burps of cows, sheep, and other ruminants is also said to contribute at least 25 percent of global methane emissions. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gasses and is around 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Given these statistics, reducing the amount of meat in our diets is widely considered to be one of the most direct ways to reduce our carbon footprints and thus help in the fight against climate change.
However, these statistics do ignore many of the nuances that come with our complicated food systems. Proponents of regenerative agriculture will argue that large ruminant animals have always been a part of the natural landscape (think millions of bison on the Greats Plains) and their methane emissions are simply part of the natural cycles of the Earth. Furthermore, prairie ecosystems have been shown to be able to store an enormous amount of carbon dioxide in the soil.
Regenerative farmers who attempt to mimic the natural movement of large herbivores moving over the landscape with their cattle, sheep, and other animals, can enrich the badly degraded soil of former prairie ecosystems. Much of the flat farmland of the United States has been repeatedly plowed for industrial grown row crops over much of the past century. This has led to an enormous amount of stored carbon being released into the atmosphere, as well as the loss of precious topsoil. Cattle and other herbivores that’s are rotated throughout pastures in a practice known as holistic rotational grazing can help to restore the fertility of these degraded soils, storing an enormous amount of carbon as fast growing grasses capture carbon and stockpile that carbon in the deep root zone of the soil.
Given this reality, many hardcore proponents of regenerative agriculture argue that we need to be eating MORE meat in order to help create markets and economic incentives for farmers to switch to regenerative grazing practices. Though this might sound hopeful, the reality is that animal agriculture continues to be dominated by feedlot beef, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Around 97 percent of U.S. beef cattle are finished on feedlots. Furthermore, the United States Department of Agriculture states that “although feedlots with 1,000-head-or-greater capacity are less than 5 percent of total feedlots, they market 80 to 85 percent of fed cattle.” The market for poultry, pork, and other meat products are similarly dominated by industrial CAFO-style operations.
Provided these contradictory arguments, is eating meat good for the environment, or does it inevitably lead to further carbon emissions driving global warming? Farmer and agrarian author Chris Smaje, author of A Small Farm Future, says that this argument boils down to a difference between what he calls “shopping aisle ethics” versus “small farmer ethics.” For the average person who doesn’t make an effort to develop a close-knit, localized relationship with the food they eat, avoiding meat may very well be the best environmental option. Because global meat, dairy, and poultry production continues to be dominated by industrial operations characterized by feedlots, CAFOs, and a global market that “pushes” cattle production into sensitive tropical forest ecosystems, reducing the amount of meat consumption will most likely help reduce your personal carbon footprint. When you´re walking down the aisle of your local Kroger or Wal-Mart, opting for garbanzo beans instead of a T-bone steak is most likely going to be the most “carbon-friendly” dietary choice.
On the other hand, people who either raise their own animals or who make an effort to develop personal relationships with the local farmers who raise their meat, might be able to support regenerative agricultural practices that can capture excess carbon and store that carbon in the soil. Similarly, health food brands and companies can also help this transition towards environmentally-friendly farming practices through seeking to establish enduring relationships with farmers, ranchers, and others who make a sincere commitment to adopting regenerative agricultural practices. If you are a small farmer, or make an effort to get to develop close relationships with those who put the food on your table, then you might be able to choose meat options that are more climate-friendly.
Hopefully, our society will be able to gradually shift towards more localized agriculture and local food systems wherein local consumers can support the sincere efforts by small to mid-sized farmers to implement regenerative grazing and other agricultural practices. Food products that are grown, transformed, marketed, and consumed within a relatively close-knit geographical area are generally not only more nutritious, but also better for the planet. Obviously, localized food products will avoid the enormous carbon footprint that comes from shipping fresh fruit from Chile to Taiwan for packing, and then back to the United States for sale, before the plastic container is eventually sent back to China for recycling. However, by eating within our local “food-shed” we also are able to regain the autonomy that comes with influencing how are food is grown.
Shopping at your local farmer´s market, participating in a consumer-supported agriculture (CSA) project, or purchasing food products from brands whose supply chains are mostly local, allow consumers to develop intimate relationships with the people who actually grow their food.
Nutritious Food is Most Likely the Best for the Planet
Finally, it is important to affirm that healthy food options are almost always going to be the most environmentally friendly options as well. The industrialized and globalized systems that dominate the agriculture and food scenes have come to rely on massive monocultures of grains. These agricultural practices oblige the use of an enormous amount of agro-chemicals, antibiotics for animals, and other synthetic residues that end up in our food and our bodies. At the same time, these “inputs” are then sold to mega corporations that process these chemical-laden foods into the junk food that are the forefront of the obesity, diabetes, and chronic heart disease epidemics.
The intersection of human and planetary health in our food systems presents an exciting opportunity to fundamentally change how we nourish our bodies in a way that can also help to regenerate the earth. Grassroots consumer groups have been extremely vocal in pressing for healthier food options, and climate scientists, soil scientists, and others are discovering the numerous ways in which holistic agricultural practices can help to draw down excess carbon dioxide.
In short, opting for nutrient dense foods that are grown in ways that support the health of the vibrant soil food web is one of the best things you can do to lower your personal carbon footprint, as well as to improve your health. The connections between the soil microbiome and the health of your own gut microbiome are intimately connected. Instead of vane attempts to monetize carbon or to get global corporations to sign onto imprecise “carbon zero” pledges, we need to find political avenues to incentivize the production and marketing of high quality, nutrient dense foods. Creating scenarios where healthy and nutritious food comes to dominate our food system will bring together the economic interests of small famers, the genuine health concerns of consumers, and the ecological interests that concern all of us.