Fight Climate Change with Food
"Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver." –NASA, Scientific Consensus
Climate Change and Our Food Choices
Our global food system is intimately connected to climate change. Food systems account for 25-30% of human-created greenhouse gas emissions.1 The livestock sector alone contributes 14.5% of emissions—more than the entire transportation sector.2,3 At the same time, global food security is increasingly threatened by climate change—through higher food prices, productivity losses, reduced nutritional quality, greater distribution of pests and diseases, and increasing extreme weather events.1 Poor and vulnerable individuals across the globe are most affected by these threats.1
Carbon Footprint Scorecard
The chart above illustrates the carbon footprint of a standard 4-ounce serving of different menu options. A 4-ounce serving of cheese would be typical in a cheesy main dish, like a quesadilla or pizza. Yogurt is typically consumed in larger portions.
The stoplight color-coding is based on the Planetary Health Diet developed by the EAT-Lancet Commission. In our stoplight scorecard, a 4-ounce serving of green foods contributes up to a quarter (0-25%) of your daily dietary carbon footprint, yellow contributes 26-50%, and red contributes >50%. You can look for the Low Carbon Footprint earth logo to identify green foods and the High Carbon Footprint earth logo to identify red foods at all UCLA Dining residential restaurants.
Minimize Your Carbon Footprint
Minimizing the carbon footprint of your food can make a meaningful impact on climate change and our planet. A carbon footprint includes every step in a food’s life cycle—the growing, harvesting, processing, and distributing of food around the world. Each step involves using resources and releasing greenhouse gases, which are quantified in carbon-equivalent units (CO2-eq).4 Clearing forests, raising livestock, and using fossil fuels for fertilizers and machinery contribute a large share of emissions in the food system.1
In general, animal-based foods have a larger carbon footprint than plant-based foods. That’s because growing food to feed animals requires many more resources than eating food directly. Plus, ruminant animals like cows produce methane (mostly by burping) and nitrous oxide (from manure), greenhouse gases 56x and 280x more potent than CO2, respectively.1,5
Reducing your meat and dairy intake is an impactful way to minimize your carbon footprint—especially if you’re a big meat eater. In fact, studies modeling a variety of climate change mitigation strategies indicate that shifts to diets with less meat and dairy—and much less beef—are crucial for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions within safe limits.5,6,7
In short, lower carbon footprint diets follow a “Flexitarian” pattern—with more plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes; less meat, dairy, and sugar; and much less ruminant meat, including beef, bison, and lamb.1,5,6,7
Impossible™ Foodprint Project
In Fall 2019, the Impossible™ Foodprint Project was launched at one of our most popular quick-service restaurants, Rendezvous West. The project involved introducing Impossible™ plant-based meat, promoting Impossible™ with information about food and climate change, and labeling all Low Carbon Footprint options at Rendezvous West. Preliminary results show that, compared to Fall 2018, Bruins increased Low Carbon Footprint food choices by 50% at Rendezvous West.
Based on the favorable response from students, we are continuing to introduce new, delicious Low Carbon Footprint menu options, including the Spiced Red Lentils at Rendezvous West. The new High Carbon Footprint logo was also inspired by the project.
Can our food choices really make an impact on climate change?
Yes! Let’s do the math. Under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to meet the Paris Climate Accord, the United States aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 326 million metric tons per year (17% below 2005 levels).8 On a per capita basis, this amounts to 2,764 grams CO2 per person per day.
Let’s do some burrito calculations:
1 beef burrito with cheese, sour cream, and rice = 3,493 grams CO2-equivalent
1 veggie burrito with beans, guacamole, and rice = 355 grams CO2-equivalent
The difference is 3,137 grams CO2, which meets our 2,764 target (plus 14% more).
Let’s see how the Impossible™ burrito fares:
1 beef burrito with cheese, sour cream, and rice = 3,493 grams CO2-equivalent
1 Impossible™ burrito with guacamole and rice = 581 grams CO2-equivalent
The difference is 2,911 grams CO2, which meets our 2,764 target (plus 5% more).
In other words, you could meet the per capita CO2 reduction target just by choosing the veggie or Impossible™ burrito instead of the beef burrito each day. Choosing to swap the veggie or Impossible™ burrito for the beef burrito just twice a week would get you 32% or 30% towards the total per capita target, respectively.
Did you know?
Of all mammals on Earth, 60% are livestock, 36% are humans, and only 4% are wild animals.9
What diet is best for climate?
Learn more in this interactive feature from The New York Times.
Hungry for more?
Take the Foodprint class! C&EE 19: Foodprint: Connections Between Food and Environment (Prof. Jennifer Jay)
Read about how UCLA students reduced their foodprint after taking the Food Cluster class in this peer-reviewed article
Check out these great resources below, curated by our friends at Harvard:
Peer-reviewed journal articles linking food choices and climate change:
- Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers
- Greenhouse gas emissions and energy use associated with self-selected US diets
- Relation between healthiness of the diet and greenhouse gas emissions from food
- Environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice
- Eating away at climate change – substituting beans for beef to help meet US climate targets
- Meat consumption, health, and the environment
- Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans
- Importance of Food Demand for Climate Mitigation
- Evidence-based resources on sustainable food systems
Reports on dietary sustainability and food system justice issues:
- Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts
- Food Empowerment Project: Because Your Food Choices Can Change the World
- FAO and Food Climate Research Network: Plates, Pyramids, Planet (PDF)
- New Climate Economy Report: Food and Land Use
- Greenpeace: Less is More, Reducing Meat and Dairy for a Healthier Life and Planet (PDF)
- World Resources Institute: Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Future (PDF)
- Food Climate Research Network: What is a Healthy, Sustainable Diet? (PDF)
- The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Measuring What Matters in the Agriculture and Food System (PDF)
- Global Climate Action Summit: Exponential Climate Action Roadmap (PDF)
- AACU: Food Justice: Combating Racism in the Agricultural System
Organizations of interest:
- Environmental Working Group
- HEAL Food Alliance
- Fair Foods Standards Council
- Food and Water Watch
- Center for Science in the Public Interest
- Oxfam: Sustainable Food
- Fair Trade Foundation
- Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System
- Food Politics in the United States: An Introduction
- Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
- Introduction to the US Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity
- American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Half of its Food
- Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know
- The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics
- How to Feed the World
- United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — IPCC Climate Change and Land Report (2019)
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), GHG emissions by livestock
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data
- 4. Heller, M. C., & Keoleian, G. A. (2014, October). Greenhouse gas emissions of the US diet: aligning nutritional recommendations with environmental concerns. In Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Life Cycle Assessment in the Agri-Food Sector (pp. 9-10).
- EAT-Lancet Commission – Summary Report of the EAT–Lancet Commission (2019) (PDF)
- Springmann, M., Clark, M., Mason-D’Croz, D., Wiebe, K., Bodirsky, B. L., Lassaletta, L., ... & Jonell, M. (2018). Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature, 562(7728), 519.
- Hedenus, F., Wirsenius, S., & Johansson, D. J. (2014). The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets. Climatic change, 124(1-2), 79-91.
- Jay, J. A., D’Auria, R., Nordby, J. C., Rice, D. A., Cleveland, D. A., Friscia, A., ... & Reynolds, J. R. (2019). Reduction of the carbon footprint of college freshman diets after a food-based environmental science course. Climatic Change, 1-18.
- Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., & Milo, R. (2018). The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(25), 6506-6511.