Locavore or Vegetarian? What’s the Best Way to Reduce Climate Impact of Food?

  • 2015-12-03
  • The Conversation

This year’s Thanksgiving feast falls only a few days before the start of the global climate summit in Paris. Although the connections are not always obvious, the topic of food – and what you choose to eat – has a lot to do with climate change.

Our global agriculture system puts food on the table but it also puts greenhouse gases (GHG) in the air, which represent a huge portion of global emissions. GHG emissions come directly from farms such as methane from cows and nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, while other emissions come from the industries that support agriculture, such as fertilizer factories that consume fossil fuels.

Still other emissions come from natural lands, which have massive stocks of natural carbon stored in plants and soils. When natural lands are cleared to make room for more food production, the carbon in those natural pools is emitted to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Adding all these emissions together makes agriculture responsible for between roughly one fifth and one third of all global anthropogenic, or mandmade, greenhouse gas emissions.

How can these emissions be reduced? My own research through the University of California Global Food Initiative has focused on evaluating a wide range of factors from biofuels to local food systems.

Undoubtedly, broad emissions reductions must come from political action and industry commitments. Nevertheless, an enlightened consumer can also help achieve meaningful reductions in GHG emissions, particularly for the case of food. The trick is to understanding what food means for your personal carbon footprint and how to effectively shrink this footprint.

On par with electricity

Zooming in from the global picture on emissions to a single home reveals how important our personal food choices are for climate change. You can use carbon footprint calculators, such as the University of California CoolClimate Tool, to get an idea of how important food is in relation to choices we make about commuting, air travel, home energy use, and consumption of other goods and services.

For the average U.S. household, food consumption will be responsible for about the same GHG emissions as home electricity consumption for the average US household.