Basics of a Sustainable Diet

Lower your Carbon Footprint with Eco-Friendly Eating Habits

There are many inconvenient truths related to global warming, one of which is that livestock animals raised for meat and dairy (chiefly cattle and pigs) are responsible for 14–18% of the climate problem.

Each kilogram of conventional beef produces 96 kg of CO2e; the average American eats 44 kg of beef a year, producing 4.2 tonnes of CO2e a year. A single quarter-pound hamburger produces 9 kg of CO2e — the equivalent of burning a gallon of gas or driving 20–25 miles in a car. Raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the transportation in the world.

Our overall food consumption may cause up to 33% of global warming, because of:

  • The impact of beef, pork and dairy. (Beef has the greatest impact.) 
  • The distance that food ravels before it reaches our plates. Most fruit and vegetables travel 2,500 to 4,000 kilometers from farm to store. A 225-gram package of imported organic spinach flown across the Atlantic produces 3 kg of CO2.
  • The way it is grown. Organic food produces 26% fewer emissions. If you eat locally grown organic vegan food, you could reduce your food’s carbon footprint to 0.35 tonnes of CO2e a year.
  • The packaging and waste associated with food.

How big is your food’s carbon footprint? Find out at


Eat less meat

A meat eater on a bicycle has a larger carbon footprint than a vegan driving an efficient car. Don’t just substitute for meat with eggs or tofu. Buy a good vegetarian cookbook, such as The Moosewood Cookbook, and visit some vegetarian websites. Vegetarian cooks have developed mouth-watering recipes, and it is rare to find an unhappy vegetarian. It is much better for your health — studies show that vegetarians have less cancer and live longer. It may feel like a leap, but it’s a very sound investment. Organic, grass-fed beef produces 40% fewer emissions, as it does not require rainforest destruction to grow soybeans to feed the cows and does not produce N2O emissions. It is also much healthier for you. Check out ecolife's article on the environmental impacts from meat consumption. 


Eat less dairy

The same arguments apply to a vegan diet that cuts outallanimal products, including milk, cheese and ice cream. Buy a good cookbook, such as How it All Vegan,and start experimenting by eating a vegan diet one day a week.


Eat organic food

Organic farming requires 63% less energy than conventional farming, produces no nitrous oxide emissions, and stores 15–28% more carbon in the soil. Until recently, everyone ate organically by default. Since organic food contains more anti-oxidants and salvestrols, it is also better for your health. If the whole world went organic, yields in the developed world would not fall, and yields in the developing world would double, so there is no reason to worry that we could not feed the world. 


Grow your own food

If you’ve got a garden, you can grow your own food — your ancestors did it all the time. The smallest space can house a tub of tomatoes, and you’ll discover what they should taste like. Take a “grow your own food” book out of the library, and start sowing seeds. As long as you nourish the soil with good compost and leaf mulch, water regularly in summer, and encourage wildlife to take care of the pests, your plants will reward you with mouth-watering food. To reduce the energy needed to cook your food, try using a solar cooker, haybox or a pressure cooker. Check out our zero mile diet article and gardening section. 


Buy locally grown food

The more you buy from local farmers markets, the smaller will be your food’s carbon footprint — and your food will also be fresher and healthier. In a comparison between two Christmas meals, the one with imported food produced 100 times more emissions than the locally grown meal — 11.89 kg versus 0.12 kg. The less food you waste, too, the better: 27% of food in the US is thrown away as waste. Each American throws away 163 pounds of food a year from uneaten portions and food wasted in preparation. 



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