When we think about how best to minimise our individual impact on this earth, usually the big (carbon) ticket items are considered first, like reducing the number of long-haul flights we take a year. But agriculture contributes nearly one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, so we can’t have a serious conversation about reducing our personal emissions without considering what’s on our plates too.
More than half of food emissions come from animal products, both directly through the release of methane and indirectly from the massive amounts of land cleared to farm animals and their feed. Per gram of protein, beef produces 280g of CO2. Other meat products, like lamb and pork, also have very large carbon footprints (180g/CO2 and 60g/CO2 respectively). Plant-based foods on the other hand, sit somewhere around 10g/CO2 per gram of protein. This is an enormous difference. Clearly, the most impactful change you can make if you’re in this diet group is to eat less meat.
There’s a lot of different ways you can reduce the amount of meat you consume. It can be as simple as having one less meal with it a week, or taking a whole day off, for example by having a ’Meatless Monday’. Start here and see how you go - if you’re finding that you hardly notice the difference, increase the frequency. Another easy way to cut back on your meat intake is to bulk out your dishes with high-protein plant foods (like adding kidney beans to mince).
If your carnivorous tendencies are just too strong to subdue and you have to have some sort of meat on your plate, consider trading high-carbon choices (like beef or lamb) for low-carbon alternatives (chicken and pork). Even better yet? Fish, which have a significantly smaller footprint than their land-based counterparts. Shrimp and prawns have the largest ‘fin’-print (80g/CO2 per gram of protein), while the farmed varieties (salmon, carp, and tilapia) more closely resemble low-impact plant foods (20g/CO2).
If we’re speaking just in terms of carbon, while vegetarianism is a marked improvement on steak and burgers, the inclusion of dairy in this diet group bumps up its emissions quite a bit. Therefore the most impactful change a vegetarian can make is to cut back on their intake of dairy and the easiest way to do that is with dairy alternatives. There are so many similar tasting substitutes, like plant milk instead of cows, or olive oil spread rather than butter - sometimes you can hardly taste the difference!
While a vegan diet typically has the lowest environmental footprint (for lack of high-carbon foods like meat and dairy), there’s always room for improvement. If you’re in this diet group, one way to reduce your impact is to compare the carbon footprint of different varieties of a food product, i.e. plant milk. A 2018 study showed that, of the plant milk varieties available, rice milk produces the most emissions (1 litre = 1.2kg CO2), while soy, oat and almond had less of an impact (1.0kg, 0.9kg and 0.7kg of CO2 respectively). This comparison can be done with any other food product, like different bean or nut varieties.
At the end of the day, whether you’re a meat eater or a vegan, we all have ways that we can improve and reduce our carbon footprint. Remember, change doesn’t happen when a small group of people do things ‘perfectly’, rather when a lot of people ‘imperfectly try’.
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