Our food choices influence the climate and the environment. Plant-based diets can help to significantly reduce the footprint of your meal plate. 

One of the gravest and most talked about topics of our time is the climate crisis. Climate science shows that the average global temperature has been gradually rising since human industrialisation. Emissions from industrial activities add to earth’s greenhouse effect. Due to industrial activities and agriculture, humans have released more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and thereby increased the global average temperature. This trend currently continues and the temperature is expected to increase even more, which affects and transforms the environment and climatic conditions – a phenomenon known as climate change. [1]

One of those greenhouse gases (GHG) is carbon dioxide (CO2), which mostly stems from burning fossil fuels. Oftentimes greenhouse gas emissions are measured in CO2-e(quivalents), i.e. more or less potent gases are converted in CO2e. One of those GHG is methane, which is much more potent than CO2, but doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide does.[2] Yet, methane is especially relevant in animal agriculture.

The role of animal agriculture

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 percent of total global GHG emissions.[3] A German study calculated that the biggest 20 meat and dairy corporations emit more GHG than the whole country of Germany.[4] The largest amount of emissions from animal agriculture (44%) is methane, which stems from ruminants’ digestive systems.[3] Methane can be 28 times more harmful than CO2.[2] Along with CO2 (27 percent), nitrous oxide is another problematic gas being released in animal agriculture, mainly from manure processing (265 times more potent).[2] 

Moreover, animal agriculture plays a huge role in land use change, which sets free emissions. (Rain)Forests, grasslands and wetlands are often cleared to make way for feeding lots and livestock production. This goes hand in hand with biodiversity loss and water pollution.[5]

Diet change is the most important solution

As it is becoming more and more of a consensus in the energy sector that coal burning and dependence on fossil energy sources has to be phased out and replaced with renewable energy sources, the elephant in the room in the agricultural sector is barely addressed by politics. Solutions to curbing emissions in the agricultural industry so far mostly include strategies against food waste, more efficient production methods, better fertilisation management or more localised food supply. But more and more studies show that the most important measure in tackling emissions from food production is changing diets. The impact on emission reduction of cutting back on animal product consumption and switching to a plant-based diet, is much more promising than any of the other suggested measures.[6]

Plant-based products generally compare favourably when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. For example, a kilogram of protein from beef generates 45 to 640 kg of CO2 equivalents, while the same amount of protein from tofu generates only 10 kg of CO2 equivalents.[7] Plant-based foods and plant-based eating has to be acknowledged as the most promising contribution to climate change mitigation. Political stakeholders have to pave the way to make the more sustainable and plant-based food choices more accessible, appealing and easier.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24021772
[2] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_Chapter08_FINAL.pdf
[3] Gerber, P. et al. (2013): Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. FAO, Rome.
[4] Heinrich Böll Stiftung, GRAIN & Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (2017): Big Meat and Dairy’s supersized Climate Footprint. Available at https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5825-big-meat-and-dairy-s-supersized-climate-footprint [03.03.2018]
[5] http://www.fao.org/3/a0701e/a0701e.pdf
[6] see, for example, https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local?fbclid=IwAR0uTgLoisOTlA6slfurSz_eKzrWXqRtg8OY1StcUDVIyvbyvHcUEbxOhiA and Willett, W., J. Rockström, B. Loken et al. (2019): Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Available at https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31788-4/fulltext
[7] Mejia, A., H. Harwatt, K. Jaceldo-Siegl et al. (2017): Greenhouse Gas Emissions Generated by Tofu Production: A Case Study. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. p.8.