How does what we eat affect climate change?

The IPPC report on Climate Change made headlines around the world for its uncompromising stance: there’s only 12 years left for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5c.[1] A few days later, the journal Nature published a widely-reported article, specifically about the food system as a major driver of climate change.[2]

Food production causes damage to the environment as a result of greenhouse gases from livestock, widespread deforestation, water shortages, the creation of ocean ‘dead zones’ with little or no oxygen, but particularly the rise in coastal dead zones as a result of fertiliser and sewage run-off.[3]

In such circumstances, it’s easy to feel despondent: our governments and lawmakers driving us to despair with inaction and disagreements; manufacturers and big business with the endless drive for profit. But, the experts agree: there is no simple, single measure to tackle the profoundly complex issues we face.

On a personal level, it’s overwhelming. There’s so much that needs to be done, and it all seems beyond our reach as individuals. However, if we agree that it’s better to do one thing than nothing, then there is one thing the experts say we can do which will help – and that is eat less meat and less dairy. In fact, in western countries we need to eat 90% less beef and 60% less milk.[4]And what are we going to eat instead? The experts recommend we should eat five times more beans and pulses, as well as more nuts and seeds.

“We tried to stay with the most conservative one of these which in our view is the flexitarian one, but even this has only one serving of red meat per week.”

Dr Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford, one of the authors of the report said, ‘’You can go from a diet that has small amounts of animal products, some might call it a Mediterranean based diet, we call it a flexitarian diet, over to a pescatarian, vegetarian or vegan diet – we tried to stay with the most conservative one of these which in our view is the flexitarian one, but even this has only one serving of red meat per week.”[5]

So, there it is: a stark but clear difference we can each make on a personal level. I’m not a vegetarian (sssh! don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I struggle to hit my 5-a-day) although I am actively trying to change and to make better choices. In terms of food, that means thinking about what I eat in terms of climate change, as well as considering other factors like budget, lifestyle and health.

I can’t call myself a flexitarian just yet, but rather than having one deliberately meat-free day a week, I’ll make the effort to have two. Perhaps I’ll try to schedule a consciously vegan day, because if I’m honest with myself, sometimes what happens now is that I substitute dairy for meat (hello cheese! hello eggs!) I will make the effort to try out some new veggie recipes, and to shop and cook more imaginatively.  And while I can’t quite pat myself on the back for my eco-credentials, it’s a start and that’s something we all need to do.

Alison Gray started working at FoodSync in September 2018. She founded and managed her own coffee shop in Stockport, working there for four years, and prior to that worked in governance and risk management in the financial services sector.