Illustration: Carbon Footprint with Seedlings

by Michael Bond

Food is often overlooked as a component of our carbon footprint, yet what we choose to eat is one of the most significant factors in the personal impact we have on the environment. A recent study examining the impact of a typical week’s eating showed that plant-based diets are better for the environment than those based on meat.1 A vegan, organic diet had the smallest environmental impact while the single most damaging foodstuff was beef. Likewise, all non-vegetarian diets require significantly greater amounts of land and water resources. The United Nations and many leading environmental organizations—including the National Audubon Society, the WorldWatch Institute, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists—have recognized that raising animals for food damages the environment more than just about anything else that we do. If you are concerned about the environment, consider these facts:


  • Consumption of red meat is responsible for 30% of our country's total food production-related green house gas emissions, while fruits and vegetables create just 11%.2
  • Raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined.3
  • Livestock production is responsible for 70% of deforestation in the Amazon, where rainforests are being cleared to create new pastures.4 (Deforestation increases greenhouse gas emissions by releasing carbon previously stored in the trees.)
  • Going vegetarian just one day per week would be like driving 1,160 fewer miles per year. Going completely vegetarian would be like driving 156 fewer miles per week.

So you can see why we often say, "The single most important thing an individual can do for the environment is to adopt a vegetarian diet.” By choosing a vegetarian diet instead of one loaded with animal products, individuals can dramatically reduce the amount of land, water, and oil resources that they consume and the amount of pollution they otherwise might cause. In addition to moving toward a plant-based diet, here are other food-related tips for reducing your carbon footprint:


  • Buy organic foods! In doing so you are promoting sustainable, earth-friendly farming practices.
  • Buy locally-produced food! Support your local farmers and vendors, and reduce your carbon footprint by reducing the distance it takes to transport the food you consume.
  • Buy in bulk! Each of us can prevent the release of 1,200 pounds of C02 per year simply by cutting our garbage output by 10%.
  • Buy natural foods! Junk food and other heavily processed foods take more energy to produce than raw or whole foods prepared at home.

If you'd like to examine your diet's specific carbon footprint, check out the food calculator provided by the Low Carbon Diet (www.eatlowcarbon.org).

Footnotes: 
  1. Baroni, L., Cenci, L., Tettemanti, M. and Berati, M. 2006. Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1-8: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~choucc/environmental_impact_of_various_di...
  2. “Guide to Low-Carbon Eating,” http://seventhgeneration.com/learn/news/guide-low-carbon-eating
  3. “Livestock a major threat to environment,” United Nations FAO Newsroom, Nov. 29, 2006: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/index.html
  4. Ibid.