March Today, Eat a Low-Carbon Diet Tomorrow | Civil Eats

March Today, Eat a Low-Carbon Diet Tomorrow

climate march

Today, hundreds of thousands of people around the world will take to the streets to fight for our lives. People’s Climate Marches are being organized in dozens of U.S. cities and a whopping 158 countries, from Burundi to Brazil to Nepal. Marchers are demanding international leaders to commit to serious emissions reductions and polluting industries to clean up their practices. Climate-impacted communities–from Hurricane Sandy survivors in New York City to indigenous peoples displaced by rainforest destruction in South America–will put a face on the urgency of this call to action.

We all know the bad news—melting ice caps, rising seas, mass extinctions—but here is the good: We actually have solutions at our fingertips; we just need the political will to embrace them. New data from Cornell, Univeristy of California at Davis, and Stanford University shows that we have enough clean energy sources to power our country. The Solutions Project is using that data to help all Americas access to clean energy, across all economic, demographic, and political divides.

We also have a blueprint for how to reshape the global food system so that instead of being one of the key drivers of the climate crisis, food becomes a central solution. Embracing a “low carbon diet” can help us both reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and survive on a hotter, less predictable planet.

Consider the worst culprits of global warming and you might think of dirty coal-fired power plants or gas-guzzling SUVs. While its true that the majority of current human-produced GHGs come from the fossil fuel industry, the global food system—from agricultural land use to processing plants and food waste in landfills—contributes to as much as one third of these emissions.

Finish Your Peas, the Ice Caps are Melting

While nearly one billion go hungry every year globally, we waste as much as half of all food we produce. That’s a tragedy for the hungry; it’s also tragic for the climate. Not only are GHGs produced in the process of growing and making that food, but the landfills where much of it ends up belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if food waste were a country, it would represent the world’s third largest GHG emitter, after China and the United States.

Around the world, folks are tackling the food waste problem with creative solutions. Urban Gleaners in Portland, Oregon is taking extra food going from restaurants and grocery stores and connecting it with food banks and other institutions in need. Love Food Hate Waste out of the UK has been pioneering education for reducing home and institutional food waste for years. And the Food Waste Recovery Network on U.S. college campuses has already saved more than 350,00 pounds of food since it was founded just two-and-a-half years ago.

Don’t Panic, Go Organic

Even when feeding billions, agriculture need not contribute to the climate catastrophe. One solution is to promote sustainable farming like organic agriculture that uses ecological strategies to manage weeds and pests and promote soil fertility. Organic farms use far less energy than those that rely on petroleum-based chemicals and synthetic fertilizer, which requires enormous amounts of energy to produce. In one long-term study comparing organic and non-organic corn production, the Rodale Institute found that the organic fields used 30 percent less energy. A Canadian life-cycle analysis found that organic farmers use less than half of the energy conventional ones do.

Healthy soil also retains water and withstands extreme weather events, like flooding and droughts, more effectively than soil from conventional operations. A University of Minnesota study also found that organic farms lost 41 percent less water. Rodale Institute’s long-term field trials research shows that organic farms produce much better than conventional ones in drought years, delivering yields up to one third higher. Moreover, healthy soil stores more carbon, meaning it stays out of the atmosphere. Andre Leu, from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, has estimated that organic agriculture practices could enable the earth’s soils to capture as much as 20 percent of current total emissions; add in agroforestry practices and that number could jump to as high as 36 percent.

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Stir Your Peanut Butter

Multi-syllabic ingredients are red flags for your health, for sure, but one of them—palm oil—is a big red flag for the planet. In Indonesia and Malaysia, carbon-rich peatlands are being drained and destroyed to make way for giant palm oil plantations. Food processors’ are increasingly buying up this oil, no matter the ecological cost. And the cost is huge. One study by Rainforest Action Network (on whose board of directors I sit) found that deforestation for palm plantations in Indonesia causes 80 percent of that nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, making the country one of the world’s leading contributors to global warming.

You can now find palm oil in most processed foods, from cookies and crackers to granola bars and peanut butter. It’s cheaper than other vegetable oils and it’s often used to increase shelf life or create the right consistency. You can thank palm oil for peanut butter than doesn’t need mixing. I would guess many of us might be willing to stir our own peanut butter if we knew it meant keeping Indonesian rainforests intact.

The Meat of the Matter

The United Nations estimates that livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of all GHG emissions, in large part because of the deforestation driven by global demand for feed as well as the emissions from intensive animal operations. But not all livestock is equally to blame: Think of beef as the Hummer on your plate. One study looking at emissions by animal type found that sheep accounted for nine percent of global livestock-related emissions, pigs five percent, and goats only four percent; whereas beef and dairy cattle account for a combined 71 percent.

One reason is that beef is a major user of farmland: It requires about three-fifths of the world’s agricultural land for either pasture or feed, yet the production delivers less than 5 percent of the planet’s protein and less than 2 percent of global calories, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And there’s water to consider, too. You don’t have to live in drought-stricken California to know that water will become even more precious as weather becomes weirder. And beef production is water-intensive, extremely so. Producing a pound of beef uses almost 50 times more water than a pound of vegetables; about 40 times more than potatoes and other root crops; and about nine times more than grain.

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As participants in today’s climate march in New York City head home, spreading back out to Queens and Brooklyn and across the country, they’ll take with them the knowledge that these moments of popular expression are key to sparking real change in the halls of Congress and the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies.

But whether we take to the streets or not, we can all take action in our own communities—and our own kitchens.



Anna Lappé is a widely respected author and educator, known for her work as an advocate for justice and sustainability along the food chain. The co-author or author of three books and the contributing author to 13 others, her work has been widely translated internationally. She is the founder or cofounder of three national organizations, including the Small Planet Institute, Small Planet Fund, and Real Food Media. Alongside her work as the Strategic Advisor to Real Food Media, Anna directs a food grantmaking program for a family foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Joel Hildebrandt
    Thank you so much for this excellent article!! Very thoughtful, concise, thought provoking.
    The one thing I think is missing is the whole question of carbon & food miles.
  2. Linda
    What I have noticed is that no articles I read ever mention the damage and CO2 emissions caused by aircraft. Why is this vast amount never brought into the figures?
  3. Jade Hignett
    great article thank you
  4. ChPo
    Eating local actually doesn't have a lower carbon footprint due to the efficiencies of mass transport. It's good for food security, local jobs, and other things, however.

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