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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Eating your carbon footprint

What you eat can leave a long-lasting effect on the planet

Hey omnivores, what if I told you that you don’t have to go vegan to have a significant impact on climate change? The simple everyday choices we make regarding food have a greater influence on our carbon footprint than you probably thought.

Most friends, family members and peers I’ve had conversations with about their carbon footprint usually fall on one of two spectrums: they want to help reduce their carbon footprint, but going vegan or vegetarian is “too hard,” or there’s no point because they think their diet doesn’t make that much of a difference.

The common denominator here is lack of motivation, probably stemming from lack of awareness. Making the right decision everyday gets a little easier when you know you’re actually making a difference.

So here’s a striking fact: “The food system contributes about 30 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with the largest proportion coming from animal-based food,” according to a study by UC Santa Barbara researchers.

Feeling motivated to put that burger down yet?

I could throw a bunch of facts about burgers that will probably make you feel like the Antichrist of the environment, like how it takes 15 pounds of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions to make half-a-pound of beef — which is equivalent to driving a car 16 miles — or that it takes 660 gallons of water to make a ⅓-pound burger. But I won’t. That’s not the point I’m trying to make. I’m not a burger-hater, I love (veggie) burgers!

Every detail of what goes on behind the curtain to bring your food to your plate isn’t common knowledge, so here’s a breakdown for you. If you were to eat a serving of chicken instead of a beef burger, you’d drop down from 5.6 grams per kilocalorie to 1.3 grams per kilocalorie of carbon emitted, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. That’s reducing your carbon footprint by over 4 times per serving, simply by choosing chicken over beef. Choosing veggies brings you down to 0.68 grams per kilocalorie of carbon emitted, and lentils a mere 0.05.

The reason livestock is such a driving force in global greenhouse gas emissions is because of cow gases (yes, cow burps and farts are killing the planet). Cows emit methane gas, which has 25 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Along with their potent flatulence, cows require a lot of land, fertilizer, water and food — which could all be instead used to sustain the increasing population. And don’t kid yourself thinking that grass-fed beef is more “environmentally friendly” than grain-fed.

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint and do your part in mitigating the effects of climate change, the fastest way is eating less meat.

Less meat does not mean becoming vegan or vegetarian. It means less meat. The Mediterranean diet, which is much less meat-heavy than Western diets, produces 2.27 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person annually, which is very close to a vegan diet that produces 2.08 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The U.S. has the highest meat footprint per capita in the world, with over 200 pounds consumed per year — which also means we have the greatest potential to make the biggest impact on the carbon footprint from food if we’re aware of what goes on behind the scenes of our food choices.

If you’re not too keen on the Mediterranean diet, recent aquaculture advancements also provide great dietary alternatives. Aquaculture now accounts for half of the world’s seafood and could be 50 to 100 times less environmentally impactful than land farming. With the world population expected to increase to 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100, more sustainable methods of farming, such as aquaculture, must be made.

At the end of the day, it’s all about knowing your impact. If you’re aware of your own carbon footprint as well as the ones from the goods you buy, you will make more conscious decisions. As more people demand more sustainably-made food, more environmentally-responsible options will arise to meet that demand and eventually become the norm.

It all stems from individual choices. Join the green side.

Written by: Daniel Oropeza — daoropeza@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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