When it comes to climate change, we don’t hear nearly enough about food.
Consider this: About one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from actions related to food production, specifically agriculture and land use. And that one-third doesn’t include emissions from food processing, transportation, refrigeration, cooking and waste. Lucky for us, eating better for the climate is usually a win-win situation, with co-benefits for our health and the environment.
The most important way to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions is to cut back on beef and dairy. About 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, mostly due to cow belching (for real!) and deforestation to raise cattle and feed. In fact, a recent Lancet article suggests that to stabilize livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions at 2005 levels by 2050 (a goal well beneath the 80 percent emissions cuts promoted by many advocates and presidential candidates), Americans would need to eat nearly two-thirds less meat. Not ready to go that far? Could you do it once a week? As a start, consider joining the Meatless Monday campaign to cut back by 15 percent.
People often ask me: “Which would you rather, local or organic?” Here I respond: “Both” and “It depends.” We need a lot more U.S.-based data to help prioritize food choices, but the answer will always vary depending on specifics of production, location, season, etc.
A good goal is to seek out foods that are local AND organic AND in season. Plus, try for foods that are minimally processed, unpackaged, made without manufactured fertilizers and pesticides, need little refrigeration or cooking, and contain few or no animal products. Avoid unseasonal foods transported by air or raised in greenhouses. Also, cut back on food waste by looking for long shelf-life foods as well as foods you love to eat. One way to satisfy a lot of these criteria: find and come on out to your local farmers’ market! (By bike, of course.)
Going beyond the individual level to reduce our food-related greenhouse gas emissions, a more comprehensive public health approach includes pushing for agricultural policies that promote sustainable food production, distribution and affordability. It includes work to change the incentives for food overproduction. It includes research and lifecycle analysis, plus improved food labeling to help consumers make informed choices. Overall, we need food and agriculture concerns to be better integrated into our national climate change policy.
This Wednesday of National Public Health Week, on “Eat Differently” day, join APHA in its commitment to a healthy, sustainable food system and consider making at least one dietary change to improve your health and reduce your carbon footprint.
Roni Neff, PhD
Center for a Livable Future,
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health