Consider your carbon ‘foodprint’
If all the climate change solutions, from electric cars to wind turbines, there’s a powerful one that’s staring you in the face — at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. What we eat doesn’t just affect our heath, experts say, it affects the health of our planet, profoundly.
By some estimates, a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from the world’s food systems, with a large share of that linked to animal agriculture. As a result, what we choose to put on our plates can have a big impact. People who stick to plant-based diets, for instance, are responsible for a whopping 75 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than people who eat around a typical serving of meat daily, according to a University of Oxford study.
“Until recently, I had no idea that what we eat had anything to do with the climate or environment,” says Kris Cameron, a retired schoolteacher in Wenatchee, Washington. “I liken adopting plant-based diets to Dorothy’s ruby slippers — we’ve had the power all along to mitigate climate change; we just need to use it.”
Cameron is a member of the Environmental Sustainability Rotary Action Group and its plant-rich diet task force, which educates people around the world about the power their individual and collective food choices have to reduce emissions that heat the planet.
Interest in plant-based diets is growing, in large part, because of concerns about climate change, other environmental impacts, animal welfare, and health. Like the name suggests, these diets include fruits and vegetables, along with nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. And they involve fewer animal products, such as meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and seafood.
Cameron’s club, the Rotary Club of Wenatchee Confluence in central Washington, educates its community by hosting a monthly plant-based potluck that draws lively crowds to a YWCA. On a Thursday evening in June, the community kitchen there filled with laughter and the intriguing aroma of a dozen dishes, including a vegetarian paella with artichoke hearts instead of seafood, a tangy raw pad thai, and colorful salads.
The biggest drivers of emissions in food production are from agriculture and land use, including methane from cattle’s digestion, nitrous oxide from fertilizers, and carbon dioxide released by clearing forests for farms and grazing. Food waste, along with the methane it generates in landfills, is another contributor.
A worldwide shift toward plant-based diets by 2050 could lead to the removal of enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, according to a study published in 2021 in Nature Sustainability. Conversely, without changes, global food consumption could add nearly 1 degree Celsius to warming by 2100, a study in the journal Nature Climate Change finds.
The Oxford study, which was conducted in the UK, found that if people there who ate more than 3.5 ounces of meat (less than a quarter-pound hamburger) a day reduced their consumption to less than 1.7 ounces, that would be the equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the road.
Capitalizing on that potential, climate activists are pushing for a Plant Based Treaty, a food-focused pledge to mitigate climate change, as a companion to the 2015 Paris Agreement. And Project Drawdown, a research group studying climate solutions, considers the large-scale adoption of plant-rich diets to be the second most effective way to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius by 2100.
By the numbers
The share of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions from food systems
Warming in Celsius that current food consumption could add between now and 2100
Difference between emissions generated by a vegan diet and one with at least 3.5 ounces of meat per day
Cameron grew up in cattle ranching country in a rural stretch of Washington state. “If you didn’t eat meat every day, there was something wrong with you,” she says.
Her pivot to plant-based foods started two years ago, after she brought home four baby chicks. As she researched how best to care for them and the more she read about farming, the less she wanted to eat animals raised on industrial farms. Already a dedicated Rotarian, she joined the action group’s plant-rich diet task force in 2022 and learned that nearly 600 people around the world had participated in the group’s online 15-day plant-rich diet challenge the year before.
Wanting to extend the success of the challenge, Cameron developed a standalone version communities or individuals can do at any time. The action group now offers it online worldwide. In addition to dozens of individuals, entire organizations and clubs have signed up, including the Rotary Club of Singapore with close to 200 members.
Besides the health benefits, she enjoys that grocery shopping now “feels like a treasure hunt.” “Food is more fun,” she says.
She organizes presentations at the municipal museum, encourages education about plant-based cooking at a food bank, and engages with a health organization that operates clinics throughout the region. Cameron also helped put together a regional resource guide that lists the plant-based options at area restaurants and grocery stores. “I popped into our chamber of commerce to ask if they wanted to use the guide, and they said, ‘Oh my gosh, we get asked about vegan restaurants all the time.’”
Information is key. In Germany, when students at university dining halls were told the environmental cost of each dish, they chose dishes that reduced their carbon footprint by nearly 10 percent. The U.S. nonprofit Greener by Default works with institutions to make plant-based foods the default option on menus, an approach that has been shown to significantly increase the amount of plant-based meals chosen and thus reduce carbon emissions.
For Cameron and her fellow Rotarians, cutting out meat was only the first step. “From there, you look at waste, especially food waste, and recycling,” she says. According to Project Drawdown, reducing food waste is the climate solution that would have the greatest impact on limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100.
The action group recently published a Green Events Handbook to help Rotarians organize events that reduce material and energy use and minimize pollution. The handbook encourages Rotary members to implement best practices around venue selection, waste disposal, recycling, transport, energy, and carbon compensation.
“Globally, we waste between a quarter and a third of food while 25 percent of the population is food insecure,” says Amelie Catheline, chair of the action group’s food waste task force and a member of the Rotary Club of Solana Beach Eco, California.
As food waste breaks down, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than CO2 in the short term. Globally, landfills and wastewater emit 70 million metric tons of methane, about a fifth of all human-caused methane emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
Catheline’s club provides support for local events, including a farmer’s market where members collect unsold food to donate to a food pantry and festivals in the park for which they provide waste sorting stations, labeled with the overarching goal “Zero Waste.”
What these changes in habits don’t mean is missing out on fun. The Wenatchee Confluence club’s potlucks were the idea of its 2022-23 president, Wendy DalPez, because “especially at the beginning when you try to cook more plant-based food, it seems overwhelming and costly to buy all the ingredients for new dishes you don’t even know you like.” The potlucks offer the opportunity to try new meals and swap ideas and recipes. And they’re open to everybody, not just Rotarians.
The event in June was sweetened by a sundae buffet, featuring ice creams made from nut milk, oat milk, and coconut. “I thought giving up cheese would be the hardest,” says DalPez, who brought a vegan cheesecake made with coconut cream, “but it’s actually the easiest.” She substitutes oat milk butter and cashew cheese for dairy.
Before the evening ended, Cameron made the rounds: “Who wants more ice cream?!”
This story originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.