Diets contribute to climate change, here’s why

Elena Correa, Staff Writer

Climate change has become a frequently discussed topic around the world. World leaders, scientists, nutritionists and citizens have all asked the same question: how can we combat climate change? While there are many answers to this question, many people want to know how they can help as individuals in their daily life. The answer: change your diet! But how exactly do our diets contribute to climate change, and how do these habits need to be changed? 

Cows and other ruminant animals, like goats and sheep, emit methane through burps and manure because of the grasses and plants they consume. Methane is a very harmful greenhouse gas. Nitrous oxide, another harmful greenhouse gas, is released into the atmosphere through manure and fertilizers used on crops for cattle feed. These animals also require large amounts of pasture to be raised on. In order to acquire this land, trees are cut down, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere initially held in those trees. 

Many statistics claim that agriculture contributes to climate change less than it does. This is usually because many stats don’t account for land-use impacts. An acre of land allowed to grow native vegetation and forest can hold much more carbon than one used for food production. Taking this variable into account reveals that agriculture contributes more to climate change than many people may realize. 

 Ruminant animals have lower growth and reproduction rates than pigs and chickens and require more feed per unit of meat produced. Beef is the most resource extensive of meat, but all meat types are less efficient than plant-based foods. Beef requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per gram of consumable protein than most plant proteins. 

Our world population is expected to grow right along with our beef emission levels. The global census is projected to grow to 10 billion people by 2050. Many of these people will join the middle class, allowing them the ability to increase their food consumption. Even after improvements in beef production efficiency, pastureland could still grow 400 million hectares, a space larger than India, to meet the growing demand. The resulting deforestation could destroy our chances of limiting the global temperature to a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Agriculture not only contributes to climate change, but it can also be tremendously affected by it. It is suggested that by 2030, 90 percent of our major crops will be affected by climate change. For example, corn will decrease 12 percent in growth and rice 23 percent. The effects of climate change on food production globally could lead to more than 500,000 deaths by 2050. This includes food availability decreasing, severe weather destroying agriculture and public health deteriorating. 

Reducing heavy red meat consumptionmostly beef and lamb—would reduce food and land-use emissions per capita by 15 to 35 percent by 2050. Going vegetarian would reduce the per capita emissions to half. Many people believe that they need more meat than they do and consume more protein than they need. While going vegetarian or vegan is a very effective way to reduce your carbon footprint, it is not necessary in order to make an impact. Although beef production will always be resource-extensive, improving the efficiency of the production is a huge step one can take in order to fight climate change. Improving feed quality, veterinary care, breeding more efficient animals and rotational grazing can promote productivity, which would put less pressure on tropical forests and reduce the need for pastureland. Technologies can also be used to reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions from cows.  

Simply reducing your red meat consumption can also combat rising temperatures. If every American replaced meat with beans once a week for a year, 75.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide would be kept out of the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of taking 16 million cars off the road annually. If ruminant meat consumption decreased by 50 calories a day, it would almost eliminate the need for agricultural expansion completely, and deforestation because of it, even with a population of 10 billion people.  

 Many people are concerned with the effects on people working in the agricultural industry if the demand for meat were to decrease. The truth is, the jobs of those in the agricultural industry will not necessarily be in danger if this were to happen. In the United States, despite the declining beef per capita consumption as of recent decades, the beef industry has held strong since the 1970s. Also, even if the demand across the developing world were to decrease, the global demand will most likely continue to increase with the growing population. Rising demand in emerging markets will present many export opportunities, but this may take time. 

 Although some most people may not be ready for a vegan lifestyle, it is clear that the consumption of meat, primarily ruminant meat, must be reduced in order to fight the climate crisis that we now face. Beef is highly inefficient, as its production involves large amounts of land, fresh water, pollution and time. Eating a more plant-based diet is not only better for the environment but has been associated with incredible health benefits. You can also buy organically and locally or grow a garden in your backyard in order to do your part. The fight against climate change can only be fought when each person controls what effect they have on the planet. Reducing your meat consumption can be one of the easiest ways to do just that!