This week I had the opportunity to speak to the Summer School of the Public Health Association of B.C., on ways we can improve food production and consumption to minimize greenhouse gas production. The event focused on climate change and public health, with three main areas for discussion: (1) low-carbon energy systems; (2) low-meat/sustainable diets, and (3) sustainable community design.
Food is relevant to the topic of climate change, because the ways we produce food, and the amounts and types we consume, contribute unnecessarily heavily to the creation of greenhouse gases (GHGs). This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for more than 15 years since I began researching for my book High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat (New Society, 2012).
There are numerous steps we can take in our personal eating habits, and in our agricultural systems, to minimize food-related GHGs. From my reading of the science, I'd say the most crucial steps are to:
- eat less and better meat, and
- waste much less food.
The phrase ‘sustainable diets’ is getting a lot of attention these days, and when you read reports on it you’ll hear of additional factors, eg to localize our food systems. That’s important for climate, for healthy rural communities and for increased local control of food. But to my mind, meat and waste are top food-and-climate priorities.
Waste is a hot topic, since it has become clear that roughly one-third of food that is produced, gets lost or trashed. That’s appalling considering the scarce resources used to produced it – and tragic given that people among us are hungry. Some communities have programs to help citizens and institutions waste less food. In Vancouver, the mandatory composting program also lowers the amount of organic matter going into landfills and creating large amounts of methane, a powerful GHG.
But the really big food-related payoff for climate will come from eating less meat, and producing animal-source foods in ways that are more consistent with local ecosystems. That means, for example, grazing small numbers of cattle, sheep or goats on grassland rather than stuffing them into feedlots or crowded buildings where intensive feed rations get trucked in, and where the manure output is so large that what in small amounts would be good fertilizer becomes an overwhelming tonnage of polluting waste.
How do livestock and meat create GHGs? First, they account for much of global deforestation for feedcrops. Second, livestock create a lot of methane from cow burps and from manure, and a lot of nitrous oxide – both of those gases powerful GHGs. Food production accounts for roughly 25% of anthropogenic GHGs, and meat and dairy probably account for more than half of that. Specific figures come from the international agricultural research group CGIAR, which summarizes total food-related emissions as 19-29% of total human-caused GHGs, and livestock 14.5% of that.
So what we can do for more Sustainable Diets? Citizens can shift to more plant-based and less meat-based meals. You do not need to become vegetarian if you don’t wish to do so. But when thinking about dinner, think ‘potatoes, carrots and lentils,' rather than always fish or meat.
Community groups of all kinds can help. The dedicated animal-welfare group Vancouver Humane Society is promoting Meatless Mondays, and was instrumental in encouraging the Vancouver Food Policy Council to recently endorse the idea of Meatless Monday for the city.
At the federal level, the Canadian government is serious about developing a National Food Policy to support not only large-scale agriculture, but also health and sustainability. To get involved in the proceedings, take a look at Canada’s main civil society group involved in National Food Policy, at http://foodsecurecanada.org/