How your food consumption impacts the global environment
Each of us has an effect on the environment, and it’s often in ways we don’t think about. Take food, for example. It accounts for 10%–30% of a household's carbon footprint, which is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions we cause directly and indirectly. These gases, including methane and carbon dioxide, trap heat in the atmosphere and are a significant cause of climate change.
Food also takes water to produce, and when we waste food, we’re wasting all the water, energy, and other resources that went into it. There’s packaging to consider as well—oh, so much packaging.
“The most immediate action anyone can take [on climate change] today is to look at what they’re putting on their plate and what they’re putting in their body,” Jillian Semaan, food and environment director at the Earth Day Network, told The Verge in February 2020.
It can be empowering to realize we can help mitigate huge environmental problems through our food choices. But knowing what to eat and what to cut back on isn’t easy when there are so many steps that occur between the farm and our table. Measuring climate impact can be difficult, and the U.S.’s dietary guidelines don’t include environmental considerations.
Stacker used news reports, studies, and blog posts from environmental organizations to compile a list of ways food production and consumption impact the environment. Many sources reference data from a meta-analysis of global food systems published in Science by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek in 2018.
A warning: Some of your favorite foods may be driving deforestation, changes in land use, biodiversity loss, pollution, and water supply stress. Just know that even minor tweaks in your diet can be beneficial.
On a larger scale, more awareness, collective action, consumer pressure on producers and large companies, government action, and emerging technologies can reverse some of the negative trends of agriculture and aquaculture, the latter of which is the farming of aquatic animals. For instance, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that irrigated land in developing countries will increase by 34% by 2030, but the amount of water used by agriculture will rise by only 14% because of improved irrigation practices.
Read on for some food for thought about the intersection of agriculture and the environment.
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Food production accounts for 26% of global emissions
The global food system is responsible for about a quarter of greenhouse gases, and 58% of those emissions stem from producing animal products. This reality may surprise many, as 65% of surveyed Americans said they “rarely” or “never” look for information about the environmental impact of different products and foods.
[Pictured: Harvesting wheat in Pakistan.]
Agriculture represents 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gases
The EPA says agriculture made up about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. in 2018 and this amount has increased 10% since 1990. Livestock, with their methane-releasing digestion, are responsible for more than a quarter of those emissions. Other emissions are tied to management practices that add nitrogen to the soil, manure management, rice cultivation, and burning crop residues.
[Pictured: Palm oil harvest in Sumatra, Indonesia.]
Cattle are significant gas emitters
Global livestock are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle raised for beef, milk, manure, and draft power account for about 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions.
Food production is destroying rainforests
Clearing rainforests destroys the habitats of plants and animals and contributes to global warming. In fact, an estimated 10% of greenhouse gas emissions are due to deforestation. Often these vital resources are destroyed to produce agricultural commodities, and four are responsible for a majority of the ruin: beef, soy, palm oil, and wood.
[Pictured: Soy plantation in Amazon rainforest near Santarem, Brazil.]
Cattle ranching is a big threat to Amazon
The Amazon rainforest absorbs carbon dioxide, but with so many trees being cleared for grazing and to plant crops such as soy to feed the grazers, the “lungs of the planet” are weakening. Cattle ranching accounts for 80% of the deforestation of the Amazon region.
[Pictured: Cattle graze in a pasture that was formerly rainforest in Para, Brazil.]
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Biodiversity is suffering because cows need so much land
Cows require lots of land—several times the amount is required to produce an equal amount of beef as poultry and about 10 times as much to produce grain. There are trade-offs when forests are cleared for cattle and other uses, including the biodiversity loss of both animals and plants.
[Pictured: A large ranch in California with over 100,000 cattle.]
Cow burps are dangerous
Cow burps sounds like concoctions of a comic genius, but they actually happen, and they’re actually pretty bad for our Earth. As part of their digestive process, those belches release the greenhouse gas methane. In fact, dairy cows each belch an average 350 pounds of it each year.
Majority of agricultural land is used for livestock
Nearly 80% of all agricultural land is used to produce livestock meat and dairy, including for grazing and producing animal feed. Yet, there’s a relatively low bang for the buck, so to speak. Only 18% of the global calorie supply comes from meat and dairy, and only 37% of the global protein supply does.
[Pictured: Livestock on a ranch in Australia.]
Producing animal feed has big impacts
An estimated 21% of greenhouse gas emissions from food production come from producing crops for humans, and 6% come from producing animal feed. Among the sources: fertilizers that release nitrous oxide and farm machinery that release carbon dioxide. Notably, 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately are consumed by humans as meat and other animal products.
[Pictured: Feed corn being processed in Brazil.]
There’s a lot of unsustainable land use
Pulling up natural vegetation to grow crops like coffee, palm oil, soybean, and wheat can increase soil erosion, which can lead to multiple environmental problems including pollution, flooding, and clogged waterways. Soil erosion from unsustainable farming renders land unusable, leading to further deforestation.
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