One diet fad scientists hope will catch on: climate-friendly eating

Why We Wrote This

How does personal responsibility fit into climate action? For many Americans, it all begins to come together in the kitchen.

Bob MackThe Florida Times-Union/AP
Sarah Morgan loads bags of grapefruits gleaned from citrus trees in Jacksonville, Florida, as a part of Feeding Northeast Florida's Citrus Harvest for the Hungry, Jan. 24, 2015. Gleaned produce might otherwise have been left to rot.

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What does food have to do with climate change? A lot. A growing body of research points to agriculture, and the food system overall, as one of the largest contributors to global warming.

As Americans begin to connect those dots, many are starting to rethink their dietary habits as an accessible way to start to reduce their carbon footprint. Research suggests that even small changes, such as reducing meat consumption, limiting food waste, or avoiding packaging, can make a big difference. Cutting back on how much beef each American consumes, even by just a single hamburger per week, could have the same impact as taking 10 million cars off the road.

Project Drawdown lists reducing food waste as the third most impactful climate solution. But keeping food out of the landfill can also translate to big savings for consumers, as the average American family of four throws about $1,600 worth of food in the trash every year.

It’s the sort of win-win that consumers are happy to embrace, says Katherine Miller of the James Beard Foundation. They can save money and help the planet at the same time.

This fall, thousands of students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst found a new type of menu waiting for them at their dining commons. The “diet for a cooler planet” menu featured a variety of “delicious low carbon and regenerative foods,” according to flyers that had been put up around campus.

This meant herb-roasted lamb, raised with a carbon-friendly silvopasture approach, which involves integrated tree farming and livestock grazing. It included “gleaned” masala sweet potatoes that had been picked from a local farm’s field post-harvest. From the French onion lentil gratin to the sautéed cauliflower and broccoli leaves, the options were plant-heavy, locally grown, and involved little to no packaging.

Meanwhile, student volunteers and a panel of farmers, professors, and climate advocates talked with diners about a growing focus for those worried about climate change: the connection between food and a warming planet.

“It was an opportunity to engage more of the campus community and to empower them, as well,” says Kathy Wicks, sustainability director for UMass Dining. “We wanted to let them participate in climate action by making choices about their food.”

The university is far from alone in this effort. Increasingly, American consumers and institutions are starting to think about how their food choices factor into climate change. For many, tangible choices at the grocery store, dining hall, and restaurant can feel more accessible than big ticket options like purchasing a fuel-efficient car or installing home solar panels and less daunting than some climate solutions such as protecting tropical forests.

And research suggests that even small changes in dietary habits can make a big difference.

Although fossil fuels and transportation systems have been the traditional targets of climate activists, a number of studies point to agriculture, and the food system overall, as one of the largest contributors to global warming. According to Project Drawdown, a research organization that evaluates climate solutions, the way food is grown, transported, and consumed accounts for about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in all of those sectors could reduce atmospheric carbon by 321.9 gigatons by 2050, the group estimates.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is one of numerous organizations hoping to persuade people to reduce their carbon footprint through food, whether by reducing food waste, eating less meat, or avoiding plastic packaging.

“One estimate we have calculated is that if, on average, Americans cut a quarter pound of beef per week from their diet – so, one hamburger – it’s like taking 10 million cars off the road a year,” says Sujatha Bergen, director of health campaigns for the health and food division of the NRDC.

Beef, indeed, is a regular target of climate activists. Cattle, particularly cows raised in concentrated feed lots, are greenhouse gas intensive for a number of reasons. Producing their feed requires extensive fossil fuel-based fertilizer. Clearing pastureland cuts into tree cover. And animals produce excessive amounts of methane when crammed together eating corn their stomachs were not meant to digest. If cattle were a nation, it would rank third behind China and the United States as the world’s largest greenhouse emitters, according to a 2016 estimate from World Resources Institute.

Faced with that data, a number of institutions have decided to shift away from meat-based menus. The University of Connecticut replaced its 100% beef burger with a “blended burger” of meat and mushrooms. The co-working company WeWork made headlines last year when it pointed to the climate crisis as the impetus for no longer serving meat at company events. And consumers are flocking to plant-based substitutes, as well: Sales of meat alternatives have skyrocketed in recent years.

Even the New York City public school system has pledged to take part in the Meatless Monday program, a public health campaign created with the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We wanted to get people to recognize the connection between diet and climate,” says Ron Hernandez, the managing director of The Monday Campaigns. “I think people are getting more of that relationship.” 

That’s what Katherine Miller, vice president of impact at the James Beard Foundation, sees as well.

“The chef community has been paying attention to climate change for a long time,” she says. “They’ve noticed how extreme weather has affected their supply chains. ... Now what’s so exciting ... is that consumers are starting to pay attention to it, too.”

Restaurants are explicitly branding themselves as climate friendly, she says. Groups such as Zero Foodprint give a label to restaurants that take particular steps to reduce climate change. The Beard Foundation in 2018 started the Waste Not initiative – a series of efforts to help both culinary professionals and home cooks to reduce food waste.

Project Drawdown lists reducing food waste as the third most impactful climate solution. While much waste occurs before consumers are involved – food left on the field or discarded because it does not fit appearance standards – Americans also end up throwing out a significant amount of food they have purchased: about $1,600 worth a year per family of four, Ms. Miller says.   

Stopping food waste, she says, is the sort of win-win that consumers are happy to embrace – they can save money and help the planet at the same time. The James Beard Foundation published its “Waste Not” cookbook in 2018; it quickly sold out of two runs.

“People are beginning to understand that their food choices make a big impact on climate,” says Megan Larmer, the director of regional food at the Glynwood Center For Regional Food and Farming in the Hudson Valley of New York.

But she cautions that substantial change will be more complicated than individuals deciding to not eat meat, or to buy locally. The entire food system is set up in a way that rewards farming and distribution practices that are not climate friendly, she says, from big monocrop production and fertilizers to the commodification of corn and other staples to incentives for food corporations to source and trade globally.

“I think about climate change a lot,” she says. “All the time. If we are going to tackle it, we need to think about reforming agriculture with tools that are different than those that have been used to build our system. ... It took us 100 years to get here so it’s going to take us some time to get out of it.”

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