Interest in plant-based diets is growing, in large part, because of concerns about climate change, other environmental impacts, animal welfare, and health.
By Michaela Haas
Originally created and posted on the Rotary International website.
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.