In many globally recognized green building certification systems, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and the Living Building Challenge, there are stringent requirements for new and existing buildings before they can achieve a certain level of environmental performance. From improving indoor air quality to optimizing energy efficiency and more, these are just a couple core areas that are assessed within a building in order to identify and implement sustainable solutions. While buildings can become more sustainable and result in reduced carbon footprints, we as individuals can take it one step further and strive to do the same.. Is there a more substantial way to lessen our environmental impact than merely recycling paper? I think so. With 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions attributed by agriculture, I believe one of the greatest ways to do so is through the food we eat.
Food production will continue to become a challenge as more people inhabit our planet and consume its resources. Current projections indicate that the global population will grow to 9.6 billion people in 2050. This also means that food calories need to be increased by 69%. 1 It is overwhelming to think about what GHG emissions will be in 2050, based on current food production methods. While I am not directly involved with innovations of sustainable food production, I know I have an active voice as a consumer through the foods I choose to purchase, cook, and eat. Before we can determine how to make more sustainable food choices, let’s take a look at carbon footprints of different types of American diets.
Shrink That Footprint analyzed five different diets as shown in the chart above. We can see that the ‘Meat Lover’ diet – consisting of more red meat – has the greatest impact, with 3.3 tons (t) of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e) emitted per person, annually. By switching out red meat with chicken, a ‘No Beef’ diet can reduce emissions to 1.9 t CO2e. Lastly, a vegan diet contributes the lowest, with 1.5 t CO2e.
It is not a surprise that a Meat Lover diet will have a higher carbon footprint, as livestock contributes 18% of global emissions. Specifically, red meat production has the highest carbon intensity of the nine food groups, with 14.1 g CO2e per kilocalorie.2
So, what does this all mean? Do we need to become vegan to save the planet as fast as possible? I don’t think that is necessarily the best answer, however, scientists at the University of Potsdam and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research noted in a study that:
“Dietary shifts towards diets that include less animal products would have a great potential for climate change mitigation, which is reflected in the higher non-CO2 GHG emission intensity for livestock compared to crop production.”3
Another interesting point of consideration is comparing GHG emissions of meat alternatives and cultured meat production. In a study of the environmental impacts of 39 meat substitutes, a research team found that there are 10 times less GHG emissions from producing meat substitutes compared to beef-based products. Also, there was an average impact of 2.4 kg CO2e per kg of product, when all types of meat substitutes were examined.4 This was compared to estimates of 9-129 kg CO2e per kg of product for beef. Cultured meat production, or meat grown using only tissue-engineering techniques, is another way to reduce environmental impacts of conventional meat production. Through this type of meat production, the estimated environmental impacts compared to conventional meat include: 96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, 45% less energy, and 96% lower water use.5 Although cultured meat is still in the research stage, it could be a part of the sustainable food production solution, especially in regards to the food gap that needs to be addressed between now and 2050. With the production of meat substitutes and cultured meat, GHG emissions are taking place mostly within a commercial building, so optimizing energy usage can further reduce emissions.
Lastly, the evidence is clear that eliminating or consuming less meat can help reduce our personal carbon footprint and lessen the effects of climate change. It would be monumental if everyone on Earth transitions to a vegan diet, but I think that is highly unrealistic and unlikely. If more people buy cultured meat instead of conventional meat, consume less meat, buy local, or transition to a plant-based, whole food diet, it all adds up towards the overall goal of reducing global GHG emissions. The more we consider environmental impacts when making food choices, the more knowledgeable we become about various ways of incorporating sustainability into our daily lives.
- Ranganathan, Janet. "The Global Food Challenge Explained in 18 Graphics."World Resources Institute. World Resources Institute, 3 Dec. 2013. Web. 04 May 2016. <http://www.wri.org/blog/2013/12/global-food-challenge-explained-18-graphics>.
- Wilson, Lindsay. "The Carbon Foodprint of 5 Diets Compared." Shrink That Footprint. N.p., 25 Jan. 2013. Web. 04 May 2016. <http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/food-carbon-footprint-diet>.
- Pradhan, Prajal, Dominik E. Reusser, and Juergen P. Kropp. "Embodied Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Diets." PLOS ONE. N.p., 15 May 2013. Web. 04 May 2016. <http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0062228>.
- Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). "Quantifying the Environmental Benefits of Skipping the Meat." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 April 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160404170427.htm>.
- Tuomisto, Hanna L., and M. Joost Teixeira De Mattos. "Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production." Environmental Science & Technology Environ. Sci. Technol.14 (2011): 6117-123. Web. 4 May 2016.