If you’re worried about climate change, one of the best ways to have an impact is to pay attention to what’s on your plate. Here are some simple things you can start doing today that really can make a difference.

By Katie Sullivan Morford, MS, RD and Petra Guglielmetti
Updated March 25, 2020
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Alex Sandoval

If you’re worried about climate change, one of the best ways to have an impact is to pay attention to what’s on your plate. Food is at the root of up to a third of all human-caused global greenhouse-gas emissions, contributing more than the entire transportation sector. And it’s not just one aspect of food production that’s to blame: It’s a big, messy tangled web, which makes meaningful change seem daunting. Here are some simple things you can start doing today that really can make a difference.

The power of your protein

By just about every metric used to evaluate the environmental impact of making food, the plant kingdom beats the animal kingdom by a long shot, noted Sophie Egan, author of How to Be a Conscious Eater and the director of health and sustainability leadership at the Culinary Institute of America. Skipping one serving of beef a week for a year saves emissions equivalent to those generated from driving 348 miles in a car. Meat production accounts for nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, and raising livestock also impacts supplies of fresh water. Not to mention that meat-centric diets are associated with heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. “Meatless Monday is a simple change that can reduce your food-related greenhouse-gas footprint by up to 7 percent, depending on what you eat instead of meat,” says Becky Ramsing, RD, MPH, senior program officer of the Food Communities and Public Health Program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and a scientific adviser for the Meatless Monday initiative. Sign up at meatlessmonday.com to have weekly ideas sent to you.

5 ways to be a more sustainable seafoodie

Break out of your routine

Expand your seafood repertoire with sustainable choices like farmed Arctic char, domestic catfish, domestic tilapia, farmed scallops, and domestic farmed trout.

Eat domestic shrimp

Go with what’s caught or farmed in the U.S. “If you’re getting a good deal on shrimp, it’s likely not sustainably farmed,” says Ryan Bigelow, senior program manager for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

Buy bivalves

Mussels, clams, scallops, and oysters are a good bet for sustainability. Collectively, they tread fairly lightly on Mother Earth.

Ask for sustainable seafood

Vote with your wallet by asking your favorite restaurants, fishmongers, and markets to stock sustainable options.

Consult seafood watch

Visit seafoodwatch.org or the mobile app to check what seafood is OK to eat. They rate practically every creature under the sea based on sustainability and stay up to date with fast-changing data.

The pesticide problem

Chemical residues show up in virtually every life form and contaminate groundwater, soil, oceans, and streams. Supporting organic agriculture may mean a pricier trip to the market, so here are a few tips for doing it on a budget.

• Use the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list—which highlights the produce with the greatest pesticide residues—to identify fruits and vegetables that are best to buy organic.

• Opt for more affordable cuts of organic meat and poultry. A whole chicken is cheaper per pound than a boneless breast, and often your butcher will do the work of cutting it up for you.

• Prioritize organic for your everyday foods. If you eat yogurt each morning or your child puts ketchup on her vegetables every night, spend for organic on those items.

• Shop the sales. When shelf-stable or freezer-friendly organics are offered at a discount, buy one to use and one to store.

Let’s talk local

There is no single answer to what local means. A common definition is anything grown or raised within 100 miles of your home; some USDA programs deem anything within 400 miles or within your home state local. What is clear is that when food originates close to home, it means less energy and emissions in transportation and refrigeration. And consider the mode of transportation; the minute anything is loaded onto an airplane, its carbon footprint goes through the roof.

How to Reduce Food Waste

“If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gas, behind China and the U.S.,” says Richard Waite, an associate at the World Resources Institute’s Food Program. Upwards of 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten, which means all the resources poured into producing that food go down the drain, too. To make sure you’re using every last bit, rethink how you cook and shop.

• Build weekly meal plans around what you already have, especially perishable items, like produce and dairy products.

• Decode date stamps: Per the USDA, manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of food safety, so don’t automatically toss foods past these dates. “Use by” is the first date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. “Sell by” tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.

• Make use of your freezer for leftovers, whether it’s extra pasta sauce, a loaf of bread, or what’s left of a pot of soup.

• Simplify everything. “Choose more whole foods that are less processed: apples instead of applesauce, plain rice instead of seasoned rice packages,” says Ramsing. “And choose foods with less plastic packaging, especially individual or small portions packed in plastic.”

• Bring leftovers home from restaurants (and then actually eat them!). This is especially important with carbon-intensive foods, such as burgers and lamb chops. So much goes into producing them; they shouldn’t go to waste.

• Use the bulk bins. Refilling glass jars or BPA-free acrylic containers cuts way back on household waste, makes your cabinets and pantry look neat, and allows you to easily see what’s inside so you don’t overbuy or let items go bad. You’ll need to weigh your containers and label each weight when you get to the store so the cashier can subtract the jar’s weight at checkout. It’s added work the first time, but no big deal after, especially if you reuse the labels.

• Keep your cart sparse. We’re not all meant to be Sunday preppers. Doing several smaller shopping trips each week could be considered just as efficient in a different way—less clutter in your fridge means much less chance of waste.

• Check out SaveTheFood.com, which has a wealth of information on food storage, meal planning, and using up leftovers and food scraps.

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