When it comes to saving the planet, many roads appear to point toward a plant-based diet. The 2019 IPCC Climate Change and Land report suggested en-mass veganism or vegetarianism as a key way of slowing climate change, and a 2014 study on the greenhouse gas emissions of various diets found that an average 2,000-calorie “high meat” diet had 2.5 times as many GHG emissions than an average 2,000 calorie vegan diet. So the proof is in the (chia seed) pudding, isn’t it?
Scientifically speaking, yes. If reducing your meat and dairy intake is an action you have taken—or are considering taking—to help fight global warming, then you have almost certainly whittled your carbon footprint. However, it might surprise you to learn that some plant-based products are also wreaking havoc with our environment. We’ll explain…
Why does food production put the planet at risk?
“The food system is currently responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, and of all the food produced globally, meat production accounts for a massive 60% of all emissions. This is comparable to emissions from all cars, trains, ships, and planes combined,” says Shane Moffat, Head of Nature and Food Campaign at Greenpeace Canada. “If we do nothing, then by 2050 emissions from the food system will represent more than half of the total global emissions associated with human activities.”
Put simply, producing food—particularly animal products—for an ever-increasing population requires a heck of a lot of resources; namely water and land, which can come as a result of deforestation. (You’ll have heard that, tragically, the Amazon rainforest is in flames, which is no accident according to Moffat: “They are the result of forests being cleared to make way for industrial meat production, logging, and mining.”)
And that’s just the start. Deforestation is resulting in biodiversity loss (the extinction of species crucial to our survival). Methane, a greenhouse gas emitted through agriculture and waste food in landfills, is warming the earth at an alarming rate. The pollution of water from animal and feed farms is contributing to “dead zones” (low-oxygen areas) in the oceans.
“A diet that is mostly plant-based, with no or a reduced consumption of meat and dairy has been shown to be more environmentally stable when greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use are measured,” says Kate Comeau, dietitian, and spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada. “That said, there are many different factors to consider when weighing the environmental impact of food.”
Which plant-based foods put the planet at risk?
Determining the environmental impact of foods can be complex, but plant-based foods tend to contribute significantly less GHG emissions than meat and dairy. That said, a handful of vegan-friendly foods have been identified as having a particularly harmful effect on the planet.
Avocados, of #avotoast fame, are high on the list. Consumption increased 443% from 1995 to 2015 and, as such, has resulted in farmers increasing their land—sometimes through deforestation—to grow more. Avocados are grown as single-crops which, over time, can rid the land of minerals leading to biodiversity loss. They are also a drain on water resources, requiring between 280.5 and 366.4 litres of water to grow just one pound of avo-goodness.
Almonds also have a heavy environmental cost. One study reported that high demand for the plant-based protein source led to land conversions in California, which caused a 27% annual increase in water demands—despite suffering a historic drought (which was declared over in March 2019). It takes around 4.16 litres of water to grow a single almond, so you can imagine the amount required for a nut butter fix.
Production of soy is causing widespread deforestation, according to WWF. Even the production of a chocolate bar, from a deforested rainforest, emits more GHG emissions than a serving of low-impact beef, as illustrated by the BBC.
What should I do to reduce my impact?
1. Do your research.
If you’re serious about eating with environmental preservation in mind, doing your homework can really help you to navigate the minefield that is the impact of food production. The Rainforest Alliance is a great resource for finding certified sustainable products and brands, and you can also check food items for the Fairtrade mark. If you’re interested in roughly calculating the environmental cost of your personal diet, check out the BBC’s climate change food calculator for an estimate.
2. Shop locally.
“The overall environmental impact of a food also depends on factors like where it is grown and how it is transported,” says Comeau. “Berries that are flown in or tomatoes grown in hothouses have higher GHG emissions than if they were grown locally, in fields.”
3. Mix up your meals.
When particular foods increase in popularity, such as avocados, farms are expanded to meet growing demand. By steering clear of food trends and instead filling our plates with a variety of in-season produce grown as locally as possible, there is less pressure on farmers to up their supply.
4. Cut back on waste.
If you’re buying more food than you consume and throwing uneaten produce in the garbage, then all of the resources it took to grow the food has been wasted. Aim to plan meals ahead of time so you aren’t purchasing extras (which is easier on your pockets, too) and freeze what you can for future use.
5. Do what works for you.
Perhaps a plant-based diet doesn’t work for you, and that’s ok. Accessibility, affordability and, most importantly, personal health are all crucial considerations when making any changes to your diet—even when the environment is concerned. Therefore, the diet that works for you in terms of health, foods you can comfortably afford, and steps you take—if you choose to—to reduce your GHG emissions, will look completely different to the one that works for a friend, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“As a dietitian, I recommend that Canadians balance their efforts to reduce their environmental impact with their health goals,” said Comeau. “Your choices might be based on the environmental impact, but should also consider factors like your family’s health needs, preferences, where you live, your budget, and so on. An environmentally sustainable diet isn’t necessarily a healthy one, and vice versa. A dietitian can help you plan and find foods that you enjoy and meet your goals in terms of the environment and your health goals.”
Next, learn about the eco-friendly habits anyone can adopt.