Climate change is making big headlines in recent months. From Colorado’s wildfires to Canada’s forests to Hawaii’s humpback whales, climate change is having a negative impact on the world around us. Thankfully, each of us can do something about climate change simply by changing to a plant-based diet.
How the Food Industry Contributes to Climate Change
The food industry is a major contributor to the climate change that is wreaking havoc on our planet. A recent study in Europe determined that food systems are responsible for 34% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. While food production is critical for our growing global population, shifting to different processes and foods can provide for our needs without unnecessary harm to our environment.
Conventional food production practices impact the environment in a wide variety of ways. For example, the clearing of forests to provide land for farming and ranching has an impact on climate change. Forests convert carbon dioxide to oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. They also store surplus carbon in a process known as sequestration. So when humans clear forests, we remove the natural tools for photosynthesis and release sequestered carbon into the air.
But deforestation isn’t the only problem; farmland management practices also contribute to climate change. Plowing fields to prepare them for planting releases more carbon into the air. The fertilizers used to prepare fields and increase crop yield also have an impact on climate change by introducing dangerous compounds, such as nitrous oxide, into the environment.
Cattle grazing is another significant contributor to climate change, with cattle and other ruminants creating over one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions within the agricultural sector. A recent study shows that one cow can produce as much as 264 pounds (120 kilograms) of methane a year. When multiplied by the 1.5 billion cattle roaming the planet, that accounts for nearly 400 billion pounds of methane, a greenhouse gas with a warming potential more than 28 times that of carbon dioxide.
What a Plant-based Diet Looks Like
The simplest way to affect the climate change being caused by the food industry is to support food production that reduces climate impact. As we shift from meat-based to plant-based diets, the demand for products such as beef, pork, and dairy will decrease, allowing the discontinuation of the damaging practices we use to produce them.
A plant-based diet includes a wide range of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, beans, legumes, and nuts. A vegetarian diet will often allow for animal-based products such as eggs and dairy while strictly avoiding meats, poultry, or seafood. Vegan diets do not allow for any animal products.
Plant-based proteins, which are central to healthy plant-based diets, allow your body to get the nutrients that it needs and can be produced through processes that also are healthy for the planet. Some experts consider beans and other legumes to be the best plant-based protein for both you and the environment, as they typically need less fertilizer and processing. Other plant-based proteins you may wish to add to your diet include jackfruit, tempeh, seitan, and tofu.
In addition to promoting the health of the planet, plant-based diets can have a positive impact on personal health. For example, studies have shown that the plant-based Mediterranean diet can have a wide variety of health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Some studies indicate that a plant-based diet offers mental health benefits as well.
Becoming an Advocate for Greater Change
At Cultivate Empathy for All, we understand that personal change is just the first step in our efforts to move towards plant-based food systems. The next step is institutional change. The present state of the food industry is not only harmful to our environment; it also has a negative impact on animal welfare, public health, and social and racial equity. We need a change.
Rather than feeling helpless, each of us can leverage our choices to encourage the institutions around us to be more responsible stewards of our global resources and collective health. Each of us, no matter what position we hold, can help shape our workplaces, schools, and government. As stakeholders, we have an opportunity to educate our institutions’ decision-makers about the association between their food procurement and its consequences on our global resources and well-being.
At first, advocating for an issue as important as the future of our planet may sound time-consuming or intimidating. The reality is you can help make a change. Start with your availability, resources, and comfort level, no matter how small they may be, and begin to make your voice heard. By joining your voice with others who are pursuing change, you can make a difference.
About the Author
Nilang Gor is a molecular biologist and the founder of Cultivate Empathy for All. He participates in activism and volunteerism centered on serving the homeless, improving animal rights, and protecting the environment. Cultivating empathy for all, he believes, is the key factor in creating systemic harmony on planet Earth.