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  • Writer's pictureThe Climate Coach

Changing what you eat is "the easiest" way to make a difference on climate

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

Simple - let's do it then! Where do I start?

In modern society, there is a plethora is different food available - and you probably know a lot about the nutritional qualities of the foods you eat (this has high protein or this has lots of sugar). You probably even know where the food comes from (New Zealand lamb or Scottish Strawberries). Food labelling has come a long way in recent times and in the UK at least, we can find out a lot about our food from either the packaging or the manufacturer website. One of the things we don't really know much about - or rather, we do know much about but don't talk about, is the environmental impact of the food we eat. I had always assumed that food transported halfway across the world by default had the biggest environmental impact of any food I ate - but that simply isn't the case.

How do I know which foods creates a lot of emissions and which foods don't then?

This is actually a really difficult question to answer - because the same food can be produced in completely different ways - and it's not just the production you have to take into account. How much preparation is required before you can consume it (processing or cooking) can also play a big part. I was listening to a podcast recently with Sarah Brindle and she took the example of the humble potato - which you would assume is great for climate. But she rightly pointed out that if you cook a single potato in a gas oven or BBQ for a couple of hours - you've actually generated a large amount of emissions from the cooking of the potato (assuming of course you used fossil fuels!). So although there were very few emissions from growing it - the cooking of it has had an impact and created high overall emissions for the consumption on that potato.

Here though - we'll park the energy used to process and cook the food and focus more on production. You can obviously control how you process and cook the foods you buy - and hopefully you'll know how you can improve there so let's help you make changes to your diet to support the climate - if not, check out our energy section.


Let me guess, I have to go "vegan" then?

No, not at all. However, in my view following a plant based diet (which is very similar to a vegan diet) is definitely the easiest way to significantly reduce your food emissions without thinking about it too much. This is because if you listed out all of the main foods we eat and look at average emissions generated for each one - you'll find that meat, dairy and eggs are at the top of that list ahead of pretty much all plant based foods. Now I'm not at all saying that you can't have meat, dairy or eggs that have lower emissions than plant based foods - but I'm willing to bet you won't be able to make those decisions whilst you are shopping - thus the easiest option is just to follow a plant based diet. Even the very worst plant based foods will have lower emissions than most meat, dairy and eggs.

When I first saw this stat, I was shocked. How could these food groups create so much of our emissions? How is that even possible? From what I can see, a lot of it comes down to the fact that consuming animal product is a very in-efficient process - especially when you are producing it at scale. To get a single chicken - you obviously need to feed it from birth right up until it reaches the desired weight before slaughter. So you need to put in way more calories than you get out - so you have to factor in the emissions from the food you give the chicken into it's overall calculation. Not forgetting that you don't eat all of the chicken - plus many chickens die before they reach slaughter weight adding yet more inefficiency into the process (e.g. avian flu!). You also have to factor in the space required to rear animals (which manifests itself as land use change or deforestation in many areas) - plus the energy and water required too. Finally animals (like humans) generate a lot of waste and byproduct which can also create yet further emissions.

I would highly recommend a read through of the page on this topic. I've shared it with family, friends and colleagues and they've all been stunned by it. I've pulled out a few charts from their site below jus to demonstrate some of the issues I've outlined already:

So to summarise:

What you eat matters for climate. From what I can see, it's the single biggest thing you can do as an individual. It doesn't cost you anything to make a change - and actually will usually work out cheaper (meat and dairy are often the most expensive things we buy at the supermarket). You can also make the change gradually and it's easy to demonstrate to others why you making some changes. Meat free Mondays? Good. Veganuary? Great. Fully plant based? Awesome! Fully plant based with no air freighted products? Dreamy! All of those things will significantly reduce your food emissions and help climate change. You need to consider your health and nutrition in these decisions of course but assuming you are up for that, what are you waiting for?

If you have any thoughts, feedback or ideas you wish to contribute on this or any other topic covered by The Climate Coach - please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.

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