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The easiest way to lower your carbon footprint

We are what you eat

I hope you like reading about food, because we’re about to spend the next month going deep. We can’t address how humans impact the climate without discussing what we eat. This is, of course, a giant topic that requires more than one email. Hell, I might not be able to adequately tackle it in a lifetime of writing.

My compromise: four emails. That feels right. So buckle up, buttercups—we’re serving food at this party. And your friends, family, and colleagues will be pissed if you don’t bring them along. How about we salvage your interpersonal relationships and make sure they’re invited.

There’s a lot of nuance to this subject, but before we sit down to our multi-course meal of information, I’m going to pass around an appetizer of action. Here’s an inexpensive, concrete thing you can do to cut your personal carbon contribution: Stop eating farmed red meat—beef, lamb, and goat—or cut down dramatically. Right now.

I took this photo at a nearby farm. Credit: Joe Brown

This is 100-percent not as easy as I make it sound with my blasé, sanctimonious pronouncement. There are countless personal, cultural, and economic factors that put this protein at the center of so many diets and lives. And yet, if you can swing it, it’s also hard to find an easier way to reduce your individual emissions contribution. I’m not just talking about food. For most of us, it’s easier to stop eating farmed red meat than it is to swap out your gas-powered car for an EV, change how you heat your home, or get your utility to generate electricity from cleaner sources. 

It makes a huge difference. According to the University of Colorado, cutting all meat out of your diet for one day a week can save more than 20,000 gallons of water per year and reduce your carbon footprint by more than 400 pounds. Imagine these numbers at scale. What does a million people practicing Meatless Mondays for a year look like? It looks like taking 348,000,000 car-miles worth of emissions out of the atmosphere, which is huge. What if those million people added another day? What if they didn’t eat meat at all? (696,000,000 car-miles and 2.4 billion car-miles, respectively. Also huge. In fact, huger.)  

Those of you who know me can probably guess at my emotional state as I write this (😭). I own three different grills and love nothing more than a medium-rare animal. My friends and I used to get together every weekend to eat a different pork dish. We started calling ourselves The Pork Club and had vanity email addresses. (Seth—whatever happened to theporkclub.com?) My wife and I chose our wedding venue in part because they were cool with us digging a huge pit in their beach and roasting a pig there. I spent 40 years perfecting a beefy sear and then pivoted to lentils.

I started this research with a teeny tiny glimmer of hope that I could find a way to eat meat without feeling like Joe the Planet Assassin. The objective truth is that, by consuming any farm-raised animal, you create more emissions than if you didn’t. 

Yeah, this information is out there, and if you haven’t already started skipping burger night, an email me from probably won’t turn you vegan. But there’s a spectrum of action that we all need to consider. I made a handy infographic that will immediately help you assess how much of a difference you can make with dietary choice. Design firms, get your notepads ready and behold the future of data visualization:

1. You get points just for showing up 2. “Meaty Monday” is a thing I just made up, where you only eat meat once a week. Give it a shot!

Humans will create emissions no matter what we eat, so we can’t fixate on perfection. Farmed vegetables still need to be farmed, which means tractors and trucks burning fossil fuels. Even the act of tilling soil releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and while advances in agriculture can reduce our impact, all of it incurs environmental costs. Our civilization relies on food that we don’t have to forage. Go ahead and @ me if you disagree—then head out to your trap line and see how many squirrels you’ve got for dinner.

Squirrels notwithstanding (that email’s coming in a couple weeks) we should all start questioning whether we need meat with every meal. This small, personal moment that occurs only in our own heads, is a huge beginning. We’ve been taught that no dinner is complete without animal protein, but that’s dangerous misinformation for so many reasons.

Consider: Raising any kind of meat is incredibly land-intensive. In addition to the physical space the animal occupies, you also need to grow its food, which takes up its own acreage. You have to process that feed, which incurs emissions as you harvest the crop and prepare it.

The further knock on ruminants like cows, sheep, and goats is that, because their digestive systems ferment what they eat in order to extract nutrients (link not secure, but it’s a good breakdown), they burp and fart a lot of methane. Methane is, according to the EPA, “more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.” 

This complex array of emissions is what a group of scientists based out of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign considered last year when they published an exhaustive (sorry) study of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Their paper, published in the journal Nature Food, found that food-based agriculture produces 35 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. 

While this is a global number, it’s still way out of sync with the EPA’s accounting, which pegs that same sector at 10 percent in the U.S.. Sure, American farmers are among the most advanced and efficient in the world, but the discrepancy, according to Atul Jain, professor of atmospheric sciences at U of I Urbana-Champaign and one of the study’s authors, is in how you define agricultural emissions. “It’s a question of accountability,” says Jain. “Some of the numbers they attribute to other sectors in fact belong in agriculture.” Take, for example, a truck driving a load of crops to be processed. Does that belong under transportation or agriculture? The EPA calls it transportation. According to Jain and his co-authors, it’s ag.  

Where does meat figure in? There’s a clue in their study’s headline: “Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods.” According to the U of I team’s data and modeling, 57 percent of food-based emissions comes from meat production versus 29 percent from plant-based food crops. (The remainder is stuff that’s used to produce food but not actually eaten.) 

This is going to become even more of an issue as the world’s population increases. “We don’t have enough land,” says Jain. 31 percent of the planet (not including the arctic and antarctic) is already being used for agriculture. That’s 11,549,705,530 acres. Of that 11.5 Billion acres, 70 percent is being used to graze and pasture animals, while the remaining 30 percent is cropland. If we’re going to feed more people, we need to address that ratio, because animal farming is not only emissions-intensive, it’s also inefficient. 

According to data from the USDA Census of Agriculture and FoodData Central compiled by the Humane Herald, soybeans will net more than six million calories per acre, while beef can give you a tad under 90,000. Wheat gives you around 4.1 million calories per acre and lentils come in a little south of 2.2 million. The most efficient meat is chicken: 1.4 million calories per acre. Pork is not quite 900,000.

Jain looks at our situation not just in terms of where we are and where we’re going, but where we could go. If more of us can shift to a plant-intensive diet, he says “we can perhaps reclaim some of the land which is currently used for animal food cultivation. And then perhaps we can use the land that is saved to grow more forest and sequester more carbon.” Who can argue against more forest?

You probably knew a lot of what you read today—even if you didn’t know the numbers. Many people have written about the climatological benefits of reducing our meat consumption. I’m not so much trying to break news here as I am setting the table (sorry, last time) for the next month’s content.

Over the next three to four weeks, we’re going to visit farms, talk to conservationists, and check in with amazing chefs to get a handle on what kind of difference we can make with what we eat. We need to figure out how to support small family farms and large economies; we need to attend to the planet’s wellbeing, but stay healthy ourselves. The good news is, there’s an army of people out there trying to fathom how we can eat without devouring our world.

I’m joining up, and I hope you will too. 

Take care of yourselves—and each other

Joe

[email protected]

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Hey, I have some corrections from this post! Am I wrong to be so excited about this? I’m just happy you’re reading and thinking and reaching out.

  1. one5c’s accountant disagrees with my recollection (and notes) of our conversation:

    I did not yell, I just talk very loud… It’s also tax season and I get to do whatever I want.

    Fair enough.

  2. I mis-stated First Republic’s fossil fuel commitments. One reader pointed out:

    First Republic committed to ending its lending to fossil fuels, not its investment, which is tied up with mutual funds – and reached carbon neutrality in operations, not in portfolio.

    That’s an important clarification. A LOT of you clicked out to First Republic’s site—presumably because you’re thinking of switching banks?—so please factor this in when making your decisions.