Select your food wisely to minimize your carbon footprint

Eating meat is one of the most harmful things you can do to the environment in terms of greenhouse gases. There is a lot of energy, resources and environmental damage that is required to get meat onto your plate, from redirecting food to livestock, clearing land for grazing, and overloading the ecosystem with animal waste and sewage. It also tends to be high in fat and have negative health effects. If everyone would become vegetarians, we would significantly reduce our impact on the planet.

I decided to try to reduce my meat consumption a couple years ago, and I still struggle with it every day.

What if you don’t want to stop eating meat? What if you struggle finding non-meat options?

Fortunately, there are ways to continue to eat meat smarter without as much guilt.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) partnered with CleanMetrics, an environmental analysis firm, to assess the greenhouse gas emissions associated with 20 types of meat, fish, dairy and vegetable proteins, as well as these foods’ effects on health. It released a Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health, which ranks these food items from best to worst.

They normalized the ratings of carbon footprint to car miles driven per 4 oz consumed, and displayed them on a nice, handy graphic.

The food items (from best to worst):

  • Lentils
  • Tomatoes
  • 2% milk
  • Beans
  • Tofu
  • Broccoli
  • Yogurt
  • Nuts
  • Peanut Butter
  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Eggs
  • Tuna
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Salmon
  • Pork
  • Cheese
  • Beef
  • Lamb

I was shocked to see lamb at the bottom of the list, and surprised that it is twice as impactful as beef. Lamb isn’t as popular as beef (at least here in the US), so that won’t be too tough for most people to reduce. However, beef is a major item in our diets, and will be a growing factor in developing countries.

So what do you do if you still have a craving for beef? Simple, mix it with a lower impactful option, or reduce the total amount you consume, to keep your overall impact as small as possible.

Here are some examples of how you can use this guide to calculate your carbon footprint for a meal:

  • 8 oz Beef and 8 oz lentils = (8 oz x 6.6 car miles per 4 oz) + (8 oz x 0.2 car miles per 4 oz) = (2 x 6.6) + (2 x 0.2) = 13.2 + 0.4 = 13.6 car miles
  • 8 oz Chicken and 8 oz potatoes = (8 oz x 1.75 car miles per 4 oz) + (8 oz x 0.75 car miles per 4 oz) = (2 x 1.75) + (2 x 0.75) = 3.5 + 1.5 = 5 car miles

If you want to change your eating habits, I would recommend you start by reducing beef and lamb from your diet, and replacing with tuna and chicken. In addition, try to increase your consumption of lentils and tomatoes.

What this guide doesn’t take into account is the other social issues that go along with food production (humane killing, animal living conditions, etc) that you’ll need to research and decide upon for yourself.

This is a great guide to make quick decisions about what to eat. Print out the graphic and carry with you, until you start to memorize it.