The Earth’s climate is changing at an alarming rate due to the global warming crisis, resulting from greenhouse gas emissions1. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are air pollutants that absorb sunlight and trap heat, causing the planet to warm. The consequences of global warming include severe drought, water shortages, wildfires, flooding, rising sea levels, and extreme storms2. Human activities are the driving force behind this crisis1. As a result, we have to consider how our actions, including dietary choices, impact the environment to create positive change.
Agriculture – both plant and animal – contributes to the global warming crisis.
Nearly 15% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from farm animal production3. There are four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions by the farm animal industry: feed production, manure management, energy consumption, and enteric fermentation3. When ruminants such as cattle digest their food, methane is produced. This process is called enteric fermentation, and accounts for nearly 40% of greenhouse gas emissions by farm animal industries3.
Sources of greenhouse gas emissions in plant agriculture include application of fertilizers, tilling the land, and irrigation practices4. Also, many fruit and vegetable products we purchase in grocery stores are imported via air and transported on trucks when local products are out of season. The transportation sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, as the burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The connection between farming and global warming can leave those who care about the environment but choose to eat meat, dairy, eggs, or even almonds feeling conflicted – the thought of giving them up can seem like an impossible task. But there are many ways that you can change your eating habits to benefit the planet, the animals, and yourself.
1. Buy local
Transportation is responsible for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions4. By purchasing food from local farmers, the distance food travels from farm to your plate is significantly reduced. This means less greenhouse gases will be released into the environment. Try shopping at your local farmers’ market and buying what is in season.
2. Look for higher-welfare animal products
Today’s conventional farms are designed to meet the high demand for animal products. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of farm animal welfare. The majority of farm animals around the world are intensively farmed. This means the animals are often raised in cages, crates, or stalls at high stocking densities to maximize production. This is why meat, egg, and dairy products from these intensive farms can be sold so inexpensively.
Pasture-raised cattle is an example of a higher-welfare farming system that is not intensive in nature. Raising cattle on pasture is very important to their welfare, as grazing on grass is a natural behaviour they are motivated to do. Raising cattle on pasture benefits the environment, as farmers do not have to rely as heavily on feed production (which emits greenhouses gases). As well, responsible grazing management can help the soil capture and store carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere5.
Higher-welfare animal products may come at a slightly higher cost. But you can feel confident knowing that the animals were raised to higher standards of care, and were not raised in intensive systems.
3. Reduce meat and dairy consumption
By simply reducing the amount of meat and dairy products you consume, you are making a difference. This will reduce the pressure on farmers to meet the high demand for cheap meat and dairy products. This in turn will decrease greenhouse gas emissions from farming practices. As an added benefit, reducing meat consumption has been linked to many health benefits. These include a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes6. In fact, the most recent update to Canada’s Food Guide in 2019 recognizes the health benefits of plant-based proteins, and now recommends choosing protein sources that come from plants more often.
4. Choose a plant-based diet
For those interested in a vegetarian or vegan diet, there are many plant-based options and alternatives on the market to make your transition easier. Although plant-based food production may produce less greenhouse gas emissions, plant-based eaters should still be mindful of their food choices. Some plant-based foods have larger environmental impacts than others. For example, production of avocados has a very high water usage footprint, which may not make them the most environmentally-friendly food. Another example is plant-based milks – the water used to produce oat or soy milk is much lower compared to that of almond milk production7.
It’s clear that reducing our consumption of intensively farmed meat can make a huge difference in the lives of farm animals, all while working towards a cleaner, healthier planet. By making conscious food choices, we can support farmers who are working to reduce the environmental impact of food production while improving farm animal welfare.
1 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Available from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-i/. Accessed August 27, 2021.
2 Natural Resources Defense Council – Global Warming 101. Available from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/global-warming-101#weather. Accessed August 27, 2021.
3 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – Livestock & Climate Change. Available from http://www.fao.org/3/i6345e/i6345e.pdf. Accessed August 27, 2021.
4 United Stated Environmental Protection Agency – Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Available from https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions. Accessed August 27, 2021.
5 Stanley et al., 2018. Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems. Available from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X17310338. Accessed August 27, 2021.
6 Mayo Clinic – Meatless Meals: The benefits of eating less meat. Available from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/meatless-meals/art-20048193. Accessed August 27, 2021.
7 BBC News – Climate Change: Which vegan milk is best? Available from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46654042. Accessed August 27, 2021.