Did you know that lettuce produces three times more greenhouse gases than bacon? In this post, I’m evaluating saving the planet diets, and will provide you with some tips to achieving the most sustainable diet.
I think that at this point, we can all agree that we humans, have had an impact on climate change. Because of this discovery, I personally believe it is our responsibility to work to reduce our footprint, one small action at a time.
Maybe you didn’t get the memo, but humans’ greatest contribution to climate change is likely the high levels of greenhouse gases (GHG) we’ve emitted over time. In nature, these gases trap heat (much like what a greenhouse does) in our atmosphere. And humans over time, yeah you and me, have produced too much in our atmosphere and that is making the earth warmer than it should be.
As we speak our politicians, scientists and international leaders are engaging in climate talks and making pledges to reduce global gas emissions. So what about us, the average consumer? What can we do? If consumers come together and we each make small lifestyle changes –whether it’s choosing to cycle to work instead of driving, or by using fuel efficient light bulbs, we all can have a positive and sustainable impact.
Aside from that, there are consumers that are reducing their carbon footprint simply through their dietary choices. In the past, most people would change their diets for one sole purpose –weight loss. Recently, I’ve seen a trend where people are changing the way they eat food to be environmentally friendly. The common diet trend is to adopt a local and/or vegetarian diet to save the plant.
My big question is: are these diets actually making a dent in solving the world’s climate problem?
When you buy local, you’re not only supporting local producers, but there are also fewer trains, planes and automobiles (in other words, big energy users) bringing your food from farm to fork. While this is an important step in helping the environment, a guava’s flight from Brazil to Ottawa only accounts for a small percentage of its actual environmental impact – 11% to be more precise. So where’s the other 89% of GHG emissions coming from?
Researchers Weber and Matthews found that “83 percent of emissions occur before food even leaves the farm gate”. So maybe we need to rethink the local movement? We need to think bigger. We need to consider the production end of our food system.
Let’s dig deeper.
Our food producers are trying to feed our growing population and in the process are emitting large amounts of GHG emissions. These high GHG emissions result in extreme weather conditions like rising sea levels and heat waves which ironically destroy crops and disrupt agricultural production making it more difficult to feed everyone. Sounds silly doesn’t it? In the process of trying to feed everyone, we’re causing more harm, and making it even harder to feed everyone.
Is that a catch 22?
So eating locally is clearly a step in the right direction, but to address the 89% of GHG emissions there must be more we can do.
So then that led me to a vegetarian diet.
Vegetarians have good intentions –they have seen the evidence that livestock farming (beef, pork and poultry) emits the greatest amount of GHGs through manure and feeding methods. Side note: Bon Appetite Magazine breaks down which meats are more sustainable than others. Click here to find the answer.
There are also added bonuses from a health perspective if you go veg the right way: a vegetarian diet can lower your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. Avoiding red meat means eating a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol which can protect you from the diseases just mentioned.
Great, so let’s go vegetarian.
But then we come to something I like to call the “bacon and lettuce paradigm”. A recent 2016 American study found that “lettuce produces 3x more greenhouse gas emissions than bacon”. Why lettuce? Well this leafy green is difficult to grow since it requires large amounts of water and energy to produce.
Now, I’m confused. If we want to reduce our environmental footprint, then should we all be switching to a bacon-only diet? While I’m sure it would make a lot of people very happy, I am in no way advocating that we should all be eating bacon all the time since nutritionally, lettuce wins each time. What I am saying is that we need to have a more nuanced understanding of how complex our food system is. And we need to be critical of the all or nothing diets that label “good” and “bad” foods, whether from a health or environmental perspective.
The moral of this story can be summarized with Michael Pollan’s mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. Maybe this time meat isn’t the enemy –meat commonly takes the fall when we talk about reversing climate change. Environmental issues occur when we consume too much of it. Maybe the secret to a good and green diet is balance. The new trend that more and more people are gravitating towards is the flexitarian lifestyle. You’re basically a semi-vegetarian but you occasionally eat meat and fish. Sounds like a compromise.
Restricting foods in our diet could mean restricting important nutrients. So a way to mitigate this is to consume in moderation, and you can still reap the nutritional benefits of food and be sustainable at the same time.
Diversifying the diet can’t hurt. If you already ate lettuce today, maybe try experimenting with another vegetable like brussel sprouts, which emit less GHGs.
“Focusing on food miles is simplistic and is only one piece of the puzzle.”
A low greenhouse gas diet (LGG) may not be trendy enough for Gweny’s lifestyle blog Goop, but it’s flexible and is aimed at letting the consumer examine a food’s lifecycle –where it’s been, how it’s been produced, and ensuring that it’s disposed correctly. Focusing on food miles is simplistic and is only one piece of the puzzle. So is just choosing to eliminate meat. A LGG has positive effects not only on the environment but also on our health.
So logistically, what does a LGG diet look like? Here are some tips:
- Eat a small amount of animal products (2-3 servings a week) – try a ‘Meatless Monday’
1 serving = the size and width of a deck of cards or the size of your palm
- Include vegetable protein sources like lentils, beans, tofu, nuts and seeds
- Choose vegetables grown closer to home –this would limit the travel of your food
- Do some research! Learn about the amount of energy used in growing the food you’re eating
- Avoid wasting food –once waste arrives at a landfill it produces harmful GHGs
- Avoid heavily packaged food –packaging requires lots of energy and usually ends up in a landfills
- Avoid highly/ultra-processed foods –these foods require large amount of energy to produce and are often calorie dense and nutrient-deficient
It may not be sexy, but the bottom line is that moderation, variation and flexibility is the best way to enjoy our food without guilt. So yes, occasionally indulging on bacon will not hurt. But remember that what you eat, the earth does also.
Thanks for reading FoodVice.
Comment below with your thoughts!