How to cut your diet’s carbon footprint if you can’t go vegan

If you’re a self-proclaimed climate warrior, you may know going vegan is one of the best things you can do to cut your carbon footprint.

Emissions from the production of beef and lamb are 250 times higher than those from legumes, per gram of protein, and pork and poultry are 40 times higher than legumes. A large amount of methane and nitrous oxide, gases that are more than 20 times and 250 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, are generated through livestock-raising activities. (CNN)

Food production accounts for about a quarter of total carbon emissions globally, according to National Geographic, and if we don’t reduce our emissions somewhere, the consequences are… not great:

Without limiting the global rise in meat consumption, particularly beef, goat and lamb, keeping the increase in global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will be impossible, the World Resources Institute said in a report. It would also result in so many CO2 emissions that even keeping a global warming temperature increase below 2°C would be difficult. (National Geographic)

But for some of us — due to allergies (ahem, me), dietary restrictions, or because you simply don’t want to — won’t be able to go fully vegan anytime soon.

Here are some simple swaps you can make in your diet right now to help curb carbon emissions and make you feel better about your food choices — helping us make better decisions for the planet in the long run.

Choose chicken over beef

The switch to choosing to eat chicken over beef cuts the greenhouse gas footprint of your plate in HALF. So maybe don’t eat that steak and opt for a chicken breast instead? There are also tons of vegan and vegetarian options in restaurants now, so give them a try!

PLEASE stop drinking almond milk

Producing a single glass of almond milk requires more water than a shower (dairy milk takes more), but does take the least amount of emissions to generate of non-dairy milks. However, water is a precious commodity, especially in the places where it’s farmed (looking at you, California), so anywhere we can switch to a more planet-friendly choice for “milk,” we should.

Credit: BBC

There are many many other options for non-dairy milk that don’t use nearly as much water as almond milk does — namely, soy and oat milk. Try those out the next time you’re shopping.

For those who need to avoid soy and nut milk — I drink flax milk, and it tastes no different to me and comes in different flavors for coffee, etc.

Try meat-free days

Can’t commit to a life with no meat every day? Some people can’t fathom it. So try Meatless Monday, or meatless any-other-day. Put on your creative hat, cut out cheese for one day, and make a vegan meal — because if you really think about it, your plate will be more focused on healthy grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Shop local & in-season

A lot of our food comes from hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. The next time you think of eating strawberries or blueberries in the winter, think of where that package traveled from to get on your plate!

Eating local foods that are in season (and shopping locally for them too) helps not only decrease the carbon footprint of the food’s journey to your kitchen, but also helps support your local farmers and economy.

On top of all this, buying fruits and vegetables and less processed food can help cut down on how much plastic we use and waste.

Boycott products with palm oil

Palm oil is really terrible for the climate because it fuels deforestation. Deforestation prevents trees from doing their job (acting as a carbon sink). Burning forests for deforestation also release carbon into the atmosphere in the form of smoke.

It’s used in pretty much everything, from lipstick to chocolate to detergent. It can be grown almost anywhere, and is really cheap to produce. If enough people cut back on consumption of products containing palm oil, these companies wouldn’t have to clear-cut as many forests to harvest it, which would allow trees to remain in place and do their jobs as carbon sinks, helping balance the planet’s carbon system. More on this here.

Check out these amazing substitutes

  • The Impossible Burger is making the rounds as one of the most meat-like burgers to ever exist — and it’s completely made of pea protein. You can enter your location on their map to find a restaurant that serves one near you, or check out the newest Impossible creations at Qdoba, Burger King, or KFC. The Beyond Meat Burger is another substitute that comes in burger, crumble, and brat form — you probably can find it in a grocery store near you.
  • Try Quorn “chicken” nuggets, “chicken” patties, and “ground beef” substitutes made of mycoprotein, a kind of fermented protein not made of soy or other nuts
  • You can still eat junk food! Did you know that Doritos, Fritos, Ruffles/Lays/Kettle brand original chips, Sour Patch Kids, Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup are all accidentally vegan? You can also swap out the snacks you normally eat and try some things from this list — all vegan!

Overall, “a diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits.” So make switches where you can — you may even feel healthier for it.

For more, take the BBC’s environmental impact quiz on the foods you eat.

*I’m choosing to leave all political stigma about animal abuse out of this post, as I am not well-versed in it. This post is purely my views on switching your diet for greenhouse gas emissions.

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