It may surprise you to learn the global impact of the humble cheeseburger. The climate impact of food has not been discussed as much as driving or deforestation, but there is an increasing awareness of the role that our food plays in climate change.
Food production; the clearing, growing, harvesting, transporting, packaging and processing of what we eat contributes a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Half of that comes from raising livestock, which creates more emissions than all planes, trains and automobiles combined.
There are many technological solutions either in development or in the early stages of implementation that look to reduce the carbon footprint of the meat industry while maintaining the current volume of consumption. These range from special additives in cattle feed to reduce methane to adding bacterial inhibitors to fertilizers that reducing nitrous oxide emissions.
Many people are in favor of these solutions because they promise to reduce pollution while allowing us to keep our current diets. While these new technologies hold some promise, it is considered unlikely that they will be able to limit emissions in any meaningful way in the near to mid-future.
The two areas highlighted by the National Resource Defense Council as holding the most potential for carbon mitigation are reducing food waste and changing dietary preferences. One study calculated that if all Americans were willing to substitute the beef they eat with beans, keeping everything else about their diet and their lives completely the same, it would free up 42 percent of America’s cropland and would achieve 46 to 74 percent of the emissions necessary to meet America’s 2020 climate change goals as set by the Copenhagen Pledge (the precursor to the Paris Agreement).
On the other hand, if current trends in increasing meat consumption were to continue, by 2050 (in 33 years), greenhouse gas emissions from food production would nearly double, enough to raise global temperatures by 2 degrees C on their own. It is impossible to avoid a catastrophic climate change scenario if we do not change the way we eat.
Full veganism or vegetarianism is not necessary to have a massive personal impact on climate change. The Food Climate Research Council suggests limiting one’s meat consumption to about 1 pound per week, which comes out to one 2 ounces serving per day. As the average American eats roughly 5 pounds of meat each week, any reduction would be an excellent way to improve personal health and help the planet.
If reducing the amount of meat you eat proves too difficult, try switching from eating beef to other animals like chicken or pork. Beef production creates more greenhouse gas emissions than any other major food item, up to 26 kg CO2 equivalent per kilogram of meat produced, whereas pork and chicken only produce 6.8 and 5 kg CO2 equivalent respectively.
Denmark is looking to put a tax on red meat as an effort to reduce its carbon footprint after the country’s Ethics Council concluded that climate change was “an ethical issue.” Likened to the current taxes on tobacco or alcohol products, the proposal would look to discourage harmful behaviors by making them more expensive.
Ultimately, the problem of our unsustainable food system is not going to be changed by single policy decisions or consumer behavioral change alone. That does not mean our individual actions are not important. While not a full solution by themselves, they are the first step on the path to an answer.