Eat sustainably with the climatarian diet

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Our daily food choices have an impact not only on our health but also on the climate. We explore how to shop, cook, eat and reduce waste in a warming world through embracing a climatarian diet.

What we choose to eat each day not only affects our health and wellbeing, but has a huge impact on the health of our planet. Agriculture produces around a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE).

The carbon footprint can vary greatly between different types of foods. Meat production, in particular beef and lamb, have the greatest emission levels of all foods. Beef’s GHGE per kilogram is around 10 times that of chicken and 20 times that of legumes, nuts and seeds.

Changing the way we eat, even just moderately, by moving towards a more climate-friendly diet can play an important part in helping stop climate change and improve our health.

What is a climatarian diet?

The main principle behind a climatarian diet is choosing foods based on their carbon footprint. This carbon-conscious way of eating involves thinking about where your food comes from and what impact it has on the Earth. A climatarian diet includes eating more unprocessed plant-based foods, reducing meat and dairy consumption (particularly beef and lamb) and reducing ultra-processed foods such as junk foods, vegetable oils and animal products. Put simply, it’s a balanced and healthy way of eating that focuses more on plant-based foods and less on animal products.

A climatarian diet also focuses on locally sourced, in-season produce. Shopping at your local market and green grocers will help reduce emissions associated with transporting food across the country or world. Reducing food waste and plastic packaged goods is also an important element of the climatarian diet.

The beauty of the climatarian diet is that it’s flexible, which makes it easy to stick to. You can choose to include some red meat, fish, poultry, or eggs in your diet, or you can choose to go vegetarian or full vegan.

Shifting towards eating a more climate-friendly diet will help reduce GHGE and therefore protect our environment. To be able to make the best food choices, it’s important to know which foods have the biggest carbon footprint.

Meat

Meat causes much higher GHGE than plant-based foods. Beef and lamb in particular have a greater impact on GHGE than other animal-based foods, partly due to how these animals digest food.

Grazing or ruminant animals like cattle, sheep and goats produce more GHGE per kilogram of food than any other livestock because they produce methane gas as a result of food fermenting in their four-stomach digestive system. The poorer the diet, the more methane gas they produce. Pigs and poultry on the other hand don’t produce methane gas. Cattle also use more land, take longer to grow and consume more energy-intensive feed, and they also produce more manure compared to chickens or pigs.

According to a study published in PNAS, beef uses 28 times more land and 11 times more water, and emits five times more greenhouse gases than the production of either poultry, pork, dairy or eggs. Animal-related agriculture accounts for around 54 per cent of land use in Australia compared with 3.8 per cent of land used to grow plants for human consumption. Animal agriculture is a major source of greenhouse emissions in Australia, contributing to around half of Australia’s greenhouse gases.

The deforestation of the Amazon and other tropical regions for beef production and to grow crops to feed animals is also a major problem and a contributor to climate change. Trees do the valuable job of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere; however, when they’re cleared or burnt their stored carbon is released into the atmosphere as mainly CO2.

Due to beef and lamb having by far the biggest carbon footprints of all foods, one of the simplest ways to reduce your carbon impact is by avoiding beef and lamb or only eating them occasionally. You can start reducing your meat intake by introducing a few meat-free days during the week where you replace meat with a healthy plant-based alternative like tofu, tempeh or legumes.

Emissions from livestock production can differ from farm to farm depending on factors such as the animals diet and the type of fertilisers used. Five Founders, North Australian Pastoral Company’s premium beef range, fully offsets its GHGE and produces certified carbon-neutral beef. This is a good option to look for when including beef in the diet.

Pork and poultry have a much lower carbon impact so you can still enjoy moderate amounts of organic free-range chicken, pasture-fed pork and sustainable fish as part of a climatarian diet. Processed pork products like ham and bacon and other deli meats should be avoided though.

Shifting from a largely meat-based diet towards a more vegetarian diet is not only better for the environment but it is much better for your health too. Eating more veggies and less meat will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. According to a Harvard University study, substituting one daily serving of red meat with a serving of nuts can cut your risk of premature death by nearly 20 per cent.

Dairy

Dairy cattle produce large amounts of GHGE and nitrogen-rich manure. GHGE are increased when cows are fed poorer-quality diets. The main source of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) on dairy farms is from cow’s urine and manure and from the use of synthetic fertilisers. Cows need plenty of grass to eat, which means that farmers often use nitrogen-rich fertilisers to help boost grass growth. Nitrous oxide released from fertilisers and manure is hundreds of times more potent than CO2. N2O depletes the ozone layer and contributes to global warming.

Cheese has the biggest carbon footprint of all dairy products. Soft varieties of cheese like mozzarella, brie, feta and camembert have a lower carbon footprint compared to aged cheeses. Buying your cheese from a local farmer is also better for the environment.

Eat a plant-based diet

If you want to choose the very best diet for the planet, going vegan is the way to go. According to a study published in Science, GHGE from plant-based foods are on average 10 to 50 times lower than those from animal products.

While eating a vegan diet has the lowest carbon impact, a vegetarian diet is the next best way to eat to help improve the health of the planet. Enjoying a plant-based diet with some organic eggs and dairy products is still climate-friendly. Choosing softer more climate-friendly cheeses is recommended; however, cheese usually isn’t eaten in large quantities like meat, so a small serving of cheese won’t have the same climate impact as eating a serving of meat.

A pescatarian diet is also considered a climate-friendly way to eat. Pescatarians eat a vegetarian diet with some sustainably sourced seafood. Choosing truly wild and sustainably sourced fish where you can is ideal as there are concerns with overfishing, and farmed fish having higher levels of toxic PCBs and dioxins compared to wild fish.

One of the best ways to choose climate-friendly fish is to buy locally caught wild fish from your local fish market. Farmed fish like farmed salmon have a higher carbon footprint due to their feed, which is made up of smaller fish, fish oil and some plant-based protein like soy or corn. Mussels, oysters and clams have a lower carbon footprint. Smaller fish like wild sardines, anchovies and herrings are also good choices which are also great sources of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Switching to a plant-based milk can also help lower your carbon footprint. Plant-based milks have been found to cause less than half the emissions of dairy milk; oat milk has the lowest carbon footprint.

Avoid unnecessary packaging

Taking a carbon-conscious approach to eating also means that being mindful of what your food is packaged in. There is a link between our overwhelming global plastic problem and climate change. During the manufacturing and end-of-life disposal of plastics, GHGE are generated. Plastics are extremely durable and very slow to degrade so they accumulate in our environment, ending up in landfill, our waterways and oceans. A study found that plastic waste slowly degrading in the ocean emits methane gas and other climate-relevant pollutants into the atmosphere.

You can lower your carbon footprint by avoiding drinks in plastic bottles, foods wrapped in plastic, plastic straws, single-use plastic shopping bags and disposable takeaway cups. Check out your local farmers’ market for produce free from packaging, or your local health food store where you can buy staples like rice, flours, nuts, seeds and legumes in bulk.

Buy in-season, locally grown produce

Be mindful of where your food has come from and how far it has had to travel. Food that has been transported by air will have a greater a GHGE impact.
Buy locally grown, in-season produce from your local farmers’ market or sign up with neighbours and friends to receive weekly veggie boxes made up of fresh local seasonal fruits and veggies. Buying local will support your local farmers and help cut down on emissions caused from having to transport your produce around the country or world.

Reduce food waste

Food waste is a major problem in Australia and around the world, having a significant impact on our environment. Food waste accounts for more than 5 per cent of Australia’s GHGE. Every year Australians waste around 300kg of food per person. When food is wasted and rots in landfill it produces methane gas. All of the water and energy that has gone into growing, harvesting, transporting and packaging the food is also wasted.

If you want to help protect the Earth, try to avoid food waste where you can. Some simple ways to avoid wasting food is to plan your meals at the beginning of the week and write a shopping list so you only buy the fresh produce you need. Freeze leftovers or have them for lunch the next day, and freeze any excess fresh herbs, pesto or sauces in an ice-cube tray. Use vegetable scraps to make soup stock, gravies, soups and broths, or put them in your compost or a green waste bin. The skins of fruits and vegetables are actually high in valuable nutrients including dietary fibre, so adding them to your meals will provide a nutritious boost. Leave the skins on baked root veggies, add shredded apple with the skin on to breakfast cereals. Try dehydrating citrus zest in a low temperature oven or dehydrator until crisp and dry. Dried lemon zest is ideal to grind up in a pestle and mortar with herbs for tasty rubs and seasoning for pork, chicken and fish.

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