Four steps toward a climate-friendly diet

A customer holds cucumbers at a farmers market on June 13, 2012 in San Francisco, Calif.

One of the biggest contributors to global warming is the food-supply system, from the fertilizer and gas used to cultivate farms to transportation and storage to what we throw away at the end of a meal. We won’t stop climate change through individual action alone, but together, we can make a real difference.

Here are four simple things we can do in changing the way we consume:

1. Eat less meat and dairy, especially beef and lamb. Livestock are by far the biggest producers of greenhouse gases in the global food system. In the U.S., most livestock-related emissions come from the animals’ digestive systems and from the fertilizer used to grow their feed. If an American family of four ate no meat or cheese one day a week, it would be like taking a car off the road for five weeks a year, according to estimates by the Environmental Working Group. If we all did it, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles.

2. Waste less food. Farmers have to grow far more food than we actually need because 40 percent of what they produce gets thrown away. That comes at a huge cost in greenhouse gases. Food waste in landfills also produces methane, which is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. Try not to buy more than you can eat, and make creative use of your leftovers. Be aware of portion size and of falling into the trap of eating food just because it’s there. Buy food that’s less than perfect so the store won’t toss it out. It also helps if you compost your kitchen scraps.

3. Use less energy. Stores and restaurants generally don’t provide information about the energy used to produce, process and bring us our food, but we can make some guesses. Highly perishable, out-of-season produce often comes by airplane, one of the most fuel-hogging vehicles. Processed foods take a lot of energy to produce. And the energy we use to transport, store and prepare food also contributes a surprisingly large share of food’s greenhouse gas emissions. Make fewer car trips to the store -- can you bike or walk? -- and consider buying Energy Star appliances. And cover your pots when you cook.

4. Support sustainable food systems. Pound-for-pound, sustainably and locally produced foods may not always be the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases. But climate-friendly eating also means doing all we can to shore up our food system so it can withstand what climate change has in store for us. The best way to do that is by shifting toward more sustainable production methods and more efficient local and regional distribution systems. Buying from responsible producers in your area -- and the restaurants and stores to which they sell -- helps strengthen that system.

There’s much more we can do, from examining our other food choices beyond meat and dairy to planning ahead, slowing down and appreciating the foods in front of us. And after we’re done voting with our forks, we can vote with our ballots, emails, phones and wallets. Demand that government and businesses step up and take action on greenhouse gases. If they hear from us enough, they’ll do it -- and we will have done our part to assure that we can enjoy our meals tomorrow as much as we enjoy them today.

About the author

Roni Neff is research and policy director at the Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Log in to post14 Comments


We are usually addicted to one type of foods and that natural food which is available everywhere in the market. But we don't see its impact on our day to day life. Now-a-days organic foods are the best foods which helps us in many ways regarding our health and nutrition so it is better that we should have this types of new types of organic foods than the conventional foods. This will also help in maintaining our climatic changes.

We often neglect our climate and environment that leads to global warming and pollution. We overlook some simple points and it has adverse effects on environment. The author has provided very simple but important points to be taken care of. Using less energy and sustainable farming methods will help a lot in decreasing global warming. And this is a nice point to encourage vegetarian diet among people.


Please explain about the durations for giving up meat and cheese and not driving. Is it giving up meat and cheese one day a week for entire year that is equal to take the car off the road for five weeks?

Also, avoid genetically engineered foods (GMOs) -- they require massive amounts of carbon emitting pesticides and fertilizer, are not local, freakishly produce sterile seeds, and their food has been proved to be less healthy. Monodiverse crops are the weakest link in a sustainable food system.

Some GMOs attempt to use genetics to breed in resistance to pests and to better survive in the climate. Therefore, I think it is incorrect to state that they require more pesticides and fertilizers.

I'm with you 100% on the "monodiversity", which seems like a weird word.

Several GMO crops are "Roundup Ready". They do not require more herbicide, they simply encourage it.

Great story, thanks for getting the message out there. If people really undertood the economic impact of two all beef fatties, etc.

I appreciate this article and radio report. Thank you for addressing this subject. We as citizens need to care more about where and how our food is made.

I just heard a report on the radio that lead me here. I have a question about using canned food, particularly home / locally grown canned veggies, how does that relate on the climate friendly diet. the reporter went to a winter farmers market, but there are cheaper alternatives for many of us. Plant a garden if at all possible, you can can your bounty and eat cheap and organic during the winter.


With Generous Support From...