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How our diets impact climate change — and what we can do about it

About 1/4 of climate change today is fueled by agriculture and factory farming. The good news? Small changes in our daily lives can have a huge impact.
Woman cooking fresh vegetables
Eating vegetarian one day a week is an easy way to start reducing your carbon footprint. yulkapopkova / Getty Images

A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change foretells a grim future if humans don’t reduce their impact on climate. If average global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial average, weather will continue to become more extreme, posing a risk to agricultural food supplies that could trigger a global food crisis, the report states.

About 25 percent of climate change today is fueled by agriculture and factory farming, according to Johnathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, a coalition of researchers and scientists who are working on climate change solutions.

“That’s about the same amount as all the world’s electricity generation, all those power plants,” Foley tells NBC News BETTER. “Food’s the same number, and we don’t talk about it.”

Foley says it’s important to understand that food and climate both influence each other. If we make small changes in our daily lives, especially the way we eat, we can alleviate much of the effects of climate change.

“Being smarter about how we grow food, how we use food, and making sure we don’t waste it are all solutions to both of those problems,” says Foley.

Here’s how experts say we can all develop better more sustainable habits around food.

Adopt a more plant-based diet

Factory farms feed cattle grain. Without their natural grass-fed diets, cattle produce the greenhouse gas methane through their manure and gases. Compounding the problem, these animals consume staggering quantities of food and water throughout their lifetimes, which puts an even greater strain on the environment.

Eating more chicken and fish, and reducing beef and lamb in our diets, is an easy way to eat more sustainably and improve our health. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, we reduce our risk for cancer when we eat less red meat.

If we collectively adopt a more plant-based diet we could reduce the equivalent of up to 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year.

But the less animal products we consume, the more sustainable our diet. If we collectively adopt a more plant-based diet we could reduce the equivalent of up to 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the IPCC report.

Many Americans are eating more animal products than they need, according to Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and plant-based nutrition and sustainability expert. If a plant-based diet is well planned, she says “you can meet all your nutrition needs.” But she says you don’t have to eliminate animal products from your diet entirely. Cutting back on animal products from a quarter to half can lessen one’s carbon footprint a lot, she says.

“The main thing is getting away from this idea where meat is the center of the plate,” says Palmer.

Here’s how Palmer says you can adopt a more plant-based diet.

Go 'flexitarian'

The “flexitarian” diet is a semi-vegetarian diet where vegetables, fruits, grains and pulses (like beans, peas and lentils) are the main portion of your meal. “Three-fourths of your plate would be filled with plants, and maybe one-fourth would have your animal food,” Palmer says.

Eat vegetarian one day a week

Another great way to reduce meat consumption is to dedicate one day a week to eating vegetarian meals, says Palmer. She says ‘Meatless Mondays’ are a great way to get started.

Tell yourself, “for one whole week I’m going to have a plant-based diet and see how I like it, where you don’t have to commit to it forever, but you’re just trying it on to see how it fits, and maybe you realize it’s not that hard, makes you feel good, it was interesting and fun,” says Palmer.

Adopt meatless mornings

An even simpler way to reduce meat is to ban it from your breakfasts, says Palmer.

“What if every day you automatically ate a plant-based breakfast? Whole grain cereals, oatmeal, waffles, pancakes, tofu scramble, a veggie burrito, there’s so many options,” she says.

Adopt a Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet is one of the healthiest ways to reduce meat consumption, according to Palmer. The diet replaces meat with fish, which has a smaller environmental impact and is good for your heart.

“It’s very plant based, filled with whole grains and vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, pulses, with just small amounts of fish as the main animal protein, and not even that much dairy, mostly in the form of yogurt or cheese rather than fresh milk,” says Palmer.

Adopt vegetarian versions of foods you grew up with

What was your favorite meal growing up? Sloppy Joes? Lasagna? Adopting veggie versions of meals you loved as a kid can be a fun way to start eating less meat, says Palmer.

Consume more pulses

Swapping meat with beans, peas and lentils (known as “pulses”) is an environmentally friendly way to reduce beef consumption, according to Palmer.

“When farmers plant whole foods like beans and lentils, it actually fertilizes the soil and reduces the need for fertilizers, and fertilizers are causing problems with runoff into the water and damaging our waterways,” says Palmer.

Pulses are also a great source of fiber and protein, she says. But if you plan to go on a meatless diet, make sure you get enough B12, iron, and zinc, says Palmer. She says these exist primarily in animal products, but can be obtained through supplements.

Eat more whole and locally grown foods

Processed foods require more harvesting, processing and transportation, and have a much larger impact on climate than whole foods, says Palmer. Buy more whole foods, and try to buy food from farmers markets and local farms if you can, she says.

“Any time you are eating foods that don’t have packages and didn’t get shipped to some processing center and then transported all over the United States, you’re going to reduce your carbon footprint,” she says. “So when we’re eating more locally we tend to cook simple foods and not buy as many packaged foods.”

Eat less junk food

Sugary foods and drinks are highly processed with little to no nutritional value, making them bad not only for humans but for the planet.

“If you think about it, highly processed foods are a waste,” says Palmer. “If we have a limited amount of land and we have to keep producing more food to feed the planet, we shouldn’t be wasting any land producing food that does nothing but hurt people’s bodies.”

Palmer isn’t recommending we give up our favorite sweets entirely, but she says eating less junk food and sugary drinks overall will make our diets greener and our waistlines smaller.

“We’re not saying your diet should be so pure that you never eat sugar,” she says, “but we can definitely make a difference.”

Reduce food waste

An estimated 1.3 billion tons — about 30 percent — of the world’s food goes to waste annually.

An estimated 1.3 billion tons — about 30 percent — of the world’s food goes to waste annually, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization of the United States. Landfills are oxygen-starved environments where food cannot decompose properly, causing it to leak methane into the atmosphere. Throwing away animal products is especially harmful, according to Foley.

“Wasting a pound of lettuce is kind of a shame,” he says. “Wasting a pound of beef is a tragedy in comparison, because it took hundreds of times more resources to grow it.”

Foley recommends three rules for reducing food waste: Don’t overbuy, don’t overcook, and eat what’s left over. “It’s kind of sensible,” he says.

Eat smaller portions

Many Americans are eating too much, according to Palmer. On top of making us unhealthy, overeating contributes to food waste.

“For example, if people ate 200 more calories than they need every day, that can be 200 calories of food that didn’t have to be produced in terms of all the eco impact,” Palmer says.

Make more trips to the grocery store

Foley says you can waste less food by making two or three trips to the grocery store each week instead of one. More frequent trips allow you to buy smaller quantities of food that are less likely to rot before you eat them.

Cook less and reuse leftovers

Foley says we can waste less food by cooking smaller portions, and he says we should eat anything leftover.

“If you’ve got a little leftover meat, turn it into a sandwich, turn it into a stew,” says Foley. “Got some leftover cheese? Put it on your next sandwich, put it on your pizza, whatever, there’s lots of things we can reuse.”

If you’re planning a party, don’t overcook, he says. Instead, encourage your guests to eat less by purchasing smaller plates.

You can also lobby your workplace or school to reduce food waste in cafeterias, he says.

“It turns out to be a really big lever,” Foley says.

Compost your plant-based food waste

A major way families can reduce food waste is by investing in a composter for their backyards, says Foley. Putting plant-based food scraps in a composter recycles your food waste and returns it back to the ground as vital nutrients for plant life.

“If you live in an apartment, it might be a little hard, but setting up a compost bin in your yard is great,” says Foley.

Eat out less and order non-meat options

Many restaurants in the United States serve oversized portions, and these meals often contain large quantities of animal products, says Palmer. For this reason, eating out is a major contributor to food waste and climate change.

She says you can reduce your climate impact by eating out less. You can also choose restaurants that serve smaller portions and where guests share meals, she says. If possible, pick a restaurant that offers more pescatarian and vegetarian options. Asian and Latin restaurants tend to serve smaller portions of meat and have more vegetable-centric dishes, Palmer says. And if you can’t finish what’s on your plate, take it home with you and eat it the next day, she says.


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