Chow down

Study offers 5 strategies to tackle one of climate change's biggest problems

The power to change is on the plate.

What we eat affects our physical and mental health — but it also has a profound impact on the health of our planet, too.

According to a new study published Thursday in the journal Science, the food industry is on track to produce 1,356 gigatons of carbon dioxide between 2020 and 2100. As the researchers highlight in the study, that is enough carbon dioxide to push the Earth beyond 2 degrees Celsius of global warming within that time frame, even if every other industry that produces CO2 suddenly halted.

But there is a way out. In the report, the scientists detail five strategies to change how we produce, supply and consume our food. Together, these solutions would result in an up to 18 percent decrease in CO2 emissions from food production. They could even tip the industry into being carbon negative.

The five strategies the scientists propose are:

  • Global adoption of a plant-based diet, like the Mediterranean diet.
  • Reducing personal consumption to healthy, recommended amounts.
  • Improving crop yields using genetics and other technology.
  • Cutting food waste by half.
  • Using precision technology, like fertilizers and food additives.

Why change — Right now, food production releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Clearing and deforestation for agriculture and livestock, fertilizers, and fossil fuels used in food production and supply chains all added up to the release of more than 35 trillion tons (16 billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide equivalents per year from 2012 through 2017, according to the paper.

Reducing food-related emissions will “likely be essential” to meeting goals to prevent global warming set out by the Paris Climate Agreement, according to the study.

Farming represents a major challenge to climate change. Drazen_/E+/Getty Images

It’s a call that’s being met with at least some seriousness by the food industry itself. Earlier this year, McDonald’s invested in a five-year project to improve soil health practices, which the company says has the potential to reduce 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the process.

McDonald’s, which first set climate goals in 2018, is one of the world’s biggest buyers of beef. Industry reports estimate that the chain buys upwards of 1.7 billion pounds per year. Cows, through grazing and methane emissions, represent a large chunk of the food industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Five strategies — Perhaps more than any other choice made through the day, what people eat feels very personal to them. Toxic diet cultures have tried to change eating habits for decades, with little success, leading to counter-strategies like intuitive eating.

However, the five-point plan the study authors lay out jibes with past research suggesting certain dietary habits may be greener than others.

In September 2020, for example, a study found that plant protein food (think lentils, beans, and nuts) could help regrow 7 million square kilometers of forest.

In 2019, a study in the United Kingdom found that it was possible for a person to reduce their dietary greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. Instead of going vegan or even vegetarian, a person could reduce meat consumption by 70 percent and dairy consumption by 65 percent, goals which could be met across income groups.

Due to land management and methane release, meat has a greater carbon footprint than other foods.NATALIE BEHRING/AFP/Getty Images

All for one — The changes outlined here cannot happen over night — something these researchers readily admit. But the clock is ticking. They stress that the strategies they lay out would need to be “adopted individually and gradually” by 2050 in order to be successful.

Importantly, they write that: "none of the five individual strategies alone are sufficient."

In other words, the personal choices we make in what we eat need to be met with wider, systemic changes within the food industry itself.

To that end, the authors point to field trials in the United States and China which show improved fertilization practices and tweaking crops can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time improving yields and reducing deforestation. At the same time, getting creative about how we use food that might otherwise be wasted could help reduce loss there, and help feed more people more nutritious food.

As the researchers write in the study:

"If dietary composition and caloric consumption are improved, [there may be] reduced prevalence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and premature mortality."

Changing our dietary culture is no mean feat. But if we choose to ignore or delay implementing these changes, then the solutions left at our disposal will only become harder to follow, the researchers caution.

Essentially, putting these strategies into play now is a win-win for both our health and the health of our world.

Abstract: The Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the increase in global temperature to 1.5° or 2°C above preindustrial levels requires rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Although reducing emissions from fossil fuels is essential for meeting this goal, other sources of emissions may also preclude its attainment. We show that even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, current trends in global food systems would prevent the achievement of the 1.5°C target and, by the end of the century, threaten the achievement of the 2°C target. Meeting the 1.5°C target requires rapid and ambitious changes to food systems as well as to all nonfood sectors. The 2°C target could be achieved with less-ambitious changes to food systems, but only if fossil fuel and other nonfood emissions are eliminated soon.
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