We often hear how eating locally-sourced food is a way to minimize the carbon footprint of our diet. But from a climate impact perspective, this only has a significant impact if transportation is responsible for a large portion of a food’s final carbon footprint. In many cases, the greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation make up only a small portion of the total emissions from food, and what we eat is far more important.
In general, beef and lamb have the biggest climate footprint per gram of protein. Plant-based foods tend to have the smallest impact. Pork and chicken are somewhere in the middle.
According to new research, U.S. food production could reduce its agricultural carbon footprint between 2.5% and 13.5% by embracing plant-based alternatives to beef. The study, from researchers at Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, and international partners, found that most of the reduction would be achieved by decreasing the number of cows needed for beef production by two to twelve million animals. The research was recently published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health.
However, the researchers also found that acting to reduce climate change in this manner could have unintended consequences. For example, economic models from the research team show that the growth in popularity of plant-based beef could disrupt the agricultural workforce, threatening more than 1.5 million jobs.
But in the big picture, doing nothing will cost much more than doing something to slow climate change. Shifting diets away from meat and other animal products and towards more plant-based foods will help shrink carbon footprints and mitigate climate change. It’s a win-win for the planet and for human health.
Photo, posted November 27, 2018, courtesy of Sarah Stierch via Flickr.