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What You Eat Can Impact Climate Change! See 9 Foods That Harm the Planet and 11 Foods That Can Help Save It

12 min read

Food and climate change: Which foods are the most damaging to the planet? And which foods could help save it? Check out the current state of climate change and see what research says about the impact of certain foods.

If there’s one common problem that every inhabitant of the Earth is currently facing, it’s climate change.

Those two words sound innocent enough: “climate change.” And maybe that’s part of the problem; with everything that’s going on right now, thinking about the climate changing in 10 or 50 or 80 years just isn’t that much of a priority for most of us.

But that’s got to change. Because really, what’s happening isn’t just climate “change”, it’s climate chaos. And as crazy as things have gotten, unless we change course, we are barely seeing the tip of the iceberg of what’s coming.

But already, climate chaos is beginning to unfold, and it’s not looking good.

With unprecedented heat waves in unlikely places, like Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and even British Columbia; unprecedented flooding in Germany, Belgium, and China; unprecedented droughts and wildfires in the Western US and around the globe; the first rainfall on the peak of Greenland’s ice sheet for the first time in literally ever — and a truly alarming new scientific report on the now-unavoidable impact of global warming on our world, we can’t keep acting as if this isn’t an urgent matter of life or death.

So here’s the latest update on the crisis — and on one of the most important things we can do to turn it around (that almost nobody is talking about!).

The Current State of Climate Chaos

crack and dry ground at rice field with sunlight

Earth’s temperature has risen about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, with about two-thirds of that warming occurring since 1975. What’s causing this rise in temperature? Well, we are.

If we don’t collectively start making major changes now, scientists predict the path we’re on will have dire consequences for all life on Earth.

The primary greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. They become trapped in the atmosphere and prevent heat from leaving the planet — causing the planet to overheat.

Storms are becoming more powerful, frequent, and unpredictable. Agricultural patterns are being overturned, with massive droughts in some places, and floods in others, leading to widespread crop failures.

Insect populations are falling, threatening entire ecosystems with collapse. Without pollinators, crops will fail. Other crops — including key global staples — are threatened by pests who move in along with warmer temperatures. And as polar ice caps melt, coastal communities, including entire nations, are being threatened by rising ocean levels and saltwater encroachment.

In short: Sea levels are rising. Ecosystems are being destroyed. Species are going extinct. And if we don’t change course, we may soon look back on the 2020s as the “good ol’ days.”

According to a new United Nations commissioned scientific report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we’ve lost the chance to reverse this overheating. Under no foreseeable circumstances will we be able to prevent the planet’s average temperature from rising another 2.7 degrees F over the next 30 years. The pollution blanket that our industrial and agricultural sectors and our western lifestyles have woven is here to stay for decades, even if we were to miraculously stop polluting tomorrow.

As a result, leading-edge scientists project that there could be more than 1.4 billion environmental refugees by 2060.

And unless we act collectively, that temperature increase could easily exceed 3.6 degrees F, which could be so catastrophic for humans and other species that the scenario could easily exceed the limits of our predictive models.

The most likely outcomes, according to the IPCC summary for policymakers, include “increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones,” as well as more severe floods and droughts. And these changes will be “irreversible for centuries to millennia.”

The report shares “unequivocal” evidence that, as most scientists have been arguing for years, human activities are the biggest driver of our warming atmosphere.

But what can we do? 

You Can Have an Impact on Climate Change

planet earth Stankovic

The problem can seem so daunting, and our individual power can feel so limited. Most of us don’t want to stop driving our cars, heating our homes, or buying the manufactured goods that keep us alive and comfortable.

Do we have to throw up our hands and hope that technology will save us? Or that the world’s energy companies will decide to stop drilling for oil?

The good news is, we all share one thing that can have a significant impact on climate change: the food we eat.

By making small adjustments to your daily food choices, you can help counteract the biggest environmental threats we’re facing today.

You have the power to help save the planet — starting with what’s on your plate. It’s not the whole story, but you can take a real bite out of the problem.

Food and Climate Change Facts You Need to Know

cute white and brown calf looking at camera in barn meat industry concept

You’ve heard that carpooling and buying more efficient vehicles is good for the planet. Perhaps you’ve even participated in Bike to Work Day or dreamed of getting an electric car to do your part.

But did you know that agriculture — specifically the breeding and raising of animals for food — contributes more to global warming than transportation?

And, of course, industrial-scale agriculture and especially animal-based agriculture is one of the planet’s heaviest users of transportation as well. Furthermore, animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction and ocean dead zones.

It makes sense then that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests reducing consumption of meat, milk, cheese, and butter as a critical way to reduce your carbon footprint.

Some of the Major Ways Modern Food Production and Climate Change are Linked

  • Livestock production is responsible for a surprisingly high amount of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This comes from both animals and their manure. Cows alone are responsible for the majority of livestock’s contribution, releasing methane through their eruptions (what 1st graders might call their farts and burps) and their manure. Methane is at least 28 times as destructive as carbon dioxide when it comes to heating the atmosphere.

    Methane’s contribution to climate chaos has sometimes been overlooked because methane doesn’t remain in the atmosphere nearly as long as carbon dioxide (CO2). But while methane is in the air, it traps a tremendous amount of heat — far more than CO2. So a dramatic reduction in methane emissions, which would occur automatically if we ate far less beef, would actually be a quick fix that would seriously help slow the rise of global temperatures. This, in turn, would give us, as Bill McKibben explains, “more time to work on the carbon quandary.”

    Eating less (or no) beef will not in and of itself solve the climate problem. But there is no possible way we can solve it without eating far less (or no) beef.

  • Animal agriculture is a leading cause of deforestation. We’re destroying countless acres of land just to grow food (like corn or soy) for livestock, or to create grazing land for cattle. And we’re doing it in very delicate ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest. Not only does this destroy habitats for already endangered species, but it also releases the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere that those plants and trees absorbed for us.
  • Growing food for livestock gives off nitrous oxide. The biggest livestock crops are soybeans, alfalfa, and corn. Corn is especially dependent on large amounts of carbon-emitting chemical fertilizer.

For a compelling narrative on the links between industrialized animal agriculture and the climate crisis, watch this short video produced by Mercy for Animals, featuring Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish student who inspired a global movement to fight climate change, and who was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019:

Greta begins by noting that our relationship with nature is broken, but “relationships can change. The climate crisis, the ecological crisis, the health crisis — they are all interlinked.”

And the thing that links them all is how we raise animals for food.

How Can We Combat Climate Change While Continuing to Feed a Growing Population?

A report from the World Resources Institute says that shifting from a standard, animal-centric diet is one of the best places to start. Even changing just 30% of your food from animal products to plant-based foods would lead to meaningful improvements (though greater reductions would be even better!).

In 2018, the journal Science published the largest study to date on the environmental impact of food. It was an enormous and thorough study. Researchers looked at data collected from 40,000 farms in 119 countries, and studied the 40 food products that represent 90% of everything we eat.

The authors concluded that livestock provides only 18% of the food calories eaten by humans, and 37% of the protein, yet it uses over 83% of farmland. Meanwhile, livestock is also responsible for 57% of water pollution, 56% of air pollution, and uses a third of the world’s fresh water.

A 2018 article in Nature states that continued consumption of the Western diet (high in processed foods and red meats) could lead to “exceeding key planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity beyond which Earth’s vital ecosystems could become unstable.”

Or, put more starkly, in the words of Star Trek Lt. Commander Montgomery (“Scotty”) Scott, “I dunnae if she can take any more, Captain!”

And even though by “Western diet” they mean the standard American diet, most other developed and developing countries have increasingly adopted or aspired to this dietary pattern.

This has not only led to an increase in many preventable chronic diseases, but it has also widened the impact of environmental damage. 

The 9 Top Climate Damaging Foods

raw products on the wooden background

By now, you’re probably wondering — exactly which foods contribute most to climate change? Where can you start if you want to shift your diet to help prevent global collapse?

A 2011 analysis by the Environmental Working Group looked at the carbon footprint of various foods. In other words, how much do different foods contribute to the greenhouse gas effect? Their report shows how many kilograms of carbon dioxide is emitted per kilogram of each food consumed.

The worst offenders included beef, of course, and also lamb, cheese, pork, farmed salmon, turkey, chicken, canned tuna, and eggs.

Beef production emits about 10 times more greenhouse gases per pound of meat than chickens or pigs, which themselves emit about 10 times more than legumes. The lowest greenhouse gas-producing animal product, chicken, is still seven times more damaging to atmospheric stability than lentils.

Plants also need natural resources to grow, but they’re far less resource-intensive than animal products.

Foods like peas, lentils, and beans need little water and can grow in tougher climates. Legumes also have the ability, in partnership with certain soil fungi, to extract inert nitrogen from the soil and use it, which reduces the need for fertilizers that release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. I’ve also never seen a plant burp or pass gas (not even skunk cabbage!).

11 Foods That Are Better for the Environment

World map made out of grains and legumes

By making more environmentally-friendly food choices, you can make a big impact.

Many plant foods contribute to far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than animal products. The EWG report included several plant foods for comparison, as outlined below:

#1 — Lentils = 0.9kg carbon per kg of lentils consumed

Lentils come in several varieties. Green and brown lentils are great for making cold lentil salads, while red lentils do well in soup and dal. You can find lentils both canned and dried.

#2 — Tomatoes = 1.1kg carbon per kg of tomatoes consumed

Tomatoes may be one of the easiest plants to grow at home, but whether you grow or buy them, they have countless uses. I enjoy them sliced on sandwiches or on top of avocado toast, chopped into salads, or blended into homemade tomato bisque.

#3 — Dry Beans = 2kg carbon per kg of dry beans consumed

Dry beans are a great, affordable bulk food to keep in your pantry. After an overnight soak and a rinse, they’re ready to cook and use in soups, bean dips, on nachos, in chili, or in a bean salad.

#4 — Tofu = 2kg carbon per kg of tofu consumed

Tofu is one of the most versatile plant proteins and comes in a range of soft and firm consistencies. Tofu takes on most any flavor or seasoning it’s given. You can eat it baked, sautéed, blended, crumbled, scrambled, or even eaten raw. (Tofu comes from soy, so keep in mind that if it isn’t organic or certified non-GMO, then it was made using GMO soy.)

#5 — Broccoli = 2kg carbon per kg of broccoli consumed

Broccoli is delicious both raw and cooked. It makes a nutritious snack any time of day and an excellent side to just about any dish. I enjoy creamy broccoli soup, roasted broccoli florets, and have even been known to put broccoli on pizza. And maybe I’m weird, but I also love it lightly steamed, with nothing on it!

#6 — Nuts = 2.3kg carbon per kg of nuts consumed

Nuts are another nutrient-dense food to keep on hand. They make great snack food, but you can also use them to make nut milk, mix them into oatmeal, sprinkle them onto salads or casseroles, or use them to make dairy-free cheese.

#7 — Rice = 2.7kg carbon per kg of rice consumed

Rice is a low-cost grain that complements many simple meals, such as stir-fries, curries, burritos, and cooked beans. It’s also a key ingredient in rice pudding, homemade veggie burgers, and sushi. Rice is often contaminated with arsenic, so you may want to limit consumption with this in mind.

#8 — Potatoes = 2.9kg carbon per kg of potatoes consumed

Potatoes are great mashed, roasted, or air-fried. Twice-baked potatoes loaded with veggies can even be the star of the meal. Leave the skin on for added nutrients.

Other Environmentally-Friendly Plant Foods Include:

#9 — Green peas

They naturally fix nitrogen in soil. This reduces the need for fertilizers and helps maintain the soil’s nutrients. For more on peas click here.

#10 — Amaranth

This grain is resilient and can grow in difficult climates. It doesn’t need much water and has been used to help with world hunger.

#11 — Oranges

These fruits are water-efficient in their whole form. They require around half as much water to grow as bananas. For more on oranges click here.

So Just How Big of an Impact is There Between Eating Plant-Based Food and Climate Change?

According to a 2018 study published in the journal Nature, adopting a plant-based diet could contribute to cutting food-related greenhouse gas emissions by more than half. 

Where Your Food Comes From Matters, Too

team of farmers working together

When it comes to choosing how the food you eat is produced, you also have some options that take the environment into consideration.

Support Local Farms

Local food is commonly considered as food grown within 100 miles from you, though there’s no official definition.

Eating locally — even if that means foods grown within your own state or region rather than foods imported from other continents — cuts down on food miles, the distance your food travels to reach you.

The more food miles traveled, the bigger the carbon footprint. The average fruit or vegetable travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles, and it wasn’t on foot, horseback, or pulled by a bicycle. We’re talking ships, trains, and trucks — most of which are gas-guzzlers. Local foods travel less, and that means they cause fewer carbon emissions.

Look for farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and urban farms in your area to support when available.

For more reasons to become a locavore (or person whose diet consists mainly of locally grown food), check out this article. (Spoilers: fresher, better-tasting food; varieties of produce selected for flavor rather than their ability to not spoil in a truck; stronger and more resilient communities.)

Support Organically Grown Produce

Food that’s grown organically can also be better for the environment.

The Soil Association says that 23% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union (EU) could be cut if half of all the farming in the EU converted to organic agriculture by the year 2030.

Organic farming attempts to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers by cultivating healthy soil, which typically stores a lot more carbon than the moribund soil kept on life support through massive and frequent applications of industrial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.

Keep an Eye on Regenerative Agriculture

Organic food is a great option, even though it’s still often grown on massive farms that aren’t all that sustainable. Using ideas from organic and holistic farming methods, regenerative agriculture is a new concept (actually, an ancient one, rediscovered!) that uses crops to mitigate climate change.

And it’s a pretty cool idea. Plants breathe out oxygen, but they also breathe in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

One of the principles of regenerative agriculture is to store that carbon dioxide in the soil by constantly increasing the ratio of organic matter through composting and heavy mulching. This can help rebuild deteriorated topsoil, lead to better and higher-yielding crops, address world hunger, reduce soil erosion, and mitigate climate change. Sounds like a win to me.

For more information about regenerative agriculture, you can check out Regeneration International’s site, here. 

Your Food Choices Matter and Affect Climate Change

creative veganism and earth day concept rockets of carrots and baby corn flying

When I face the enormity of climate change, sometimes the problem can feel so large that I’m tempted to think that I don’t matter all that much. Sometimes, I can feel like not so much a drop in the bucket, as a drop in the sea.

And then I remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said, “Whatever you do (may be) insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” 

And when I look at how food and climate change are related, I start to think that maybe our choices aren’t really all that insignificant after all.

Because when it comes to what you and I eat, we have real power. And it just so happens that the same food choices that contribute to a healthier climate can also help contribute to longer and healthier lives.

So whether you go 100% plant-based or adopt a meat-free Monday (as many New YorkLos Angeles, and other public school districts are doing), and whether you support organic or regenerative agriculture some of the time or all of the time… There are steps you can take.

And every step, and every bite counts — for you, and for the planet, too.

Tell us in the comments:

  • What questions or concerns do you have about food and climate change?
  • How does climate change impact the way that you think about food?
  • Are there any foods you prefer, or avoid, because of their climate impact?

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