The case for more climate-friendly dining

Photo by www.zanda. photography on Unsplash

In tackling climate change: lawmakers have their duty to pass more corporate regulations, corporations have the responsibility to adopt sustainable practices… and every American should take a look at what is on their plate.

According to a United Nations-backed 2020 study, global food systems — which include all processes related to the production, processing, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food — cause 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

So it’s clear that what we consume have a monumental effect on the impending pace of climate change. But what specific foods in particular are the best, or worst for the environment? What part of the supply chain is the worst in the food system? And what is one way you can weave more “climate-friendly” dining into your weekly routine? I examined data from the largest meta-analysis of global food systems to date to find out.

Ranking the most and least “climate-friendly” foods

After analyzing the greenhouse gas emissions of 43 food products across more than 38,000 farms from 113 countries, the data is clear on who the culprits are.

For our analysis, we’ll define the food products with the highest greenhouse gas emissions as the least “climate-friendly,” and those with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions as the most “climate-friendly.

The ten food products with the highest greenhouse gas emissions are overwhelmingly animal products.

Beef, Lamb & Mutton, and Cheese take the cake for the least climate-friendly foods.

The ten “best” food products are all plant products.

Peas, Misc. Fruit, and Misc. Vegetables top out the list as most climate-friendly foods.

Diving deeper into the food production chain

The food supply chain can be classified into seven steps: land use change, farm, animal feed, processing, transport, retail, and packaging. For our purposes, we’ve divided the supply chain into “internal” (land use change to processing) and “external” (transport to packaging) steps of the supply chain.

Source: Ourworldindata.org

Interestingly enough, we can zoom out and examine all food products together, this time, analyzing what part of the food supply chain is the worst offender.

Comparing internal and external greenhouse gas totals, it’s clear that internal parts of the supply chain —land use change, farm, animal feed, and processing — contribute overwhelmingly to total supply chain emission. Other factors that can also be toted as important, such as buying local produce or minimally-packaged goods, are not as significant as the innate farming/production of the food.

In other words, it’s more about the food itself, not how it gets there. And in this case, the data is clear: choosing plant-based foods are most climate-friendly by far.

Climate-friendly behavior change you can implement

So now that we know the most climate-friendly food products are plant-based whole vegetables and fruits, what can we do with this information? You don’t have to go fully vegan to make a difference; adding a few more plant-based meals to your rotation is a worthwhile option that can reduce your carbon footprint. According to a World Resources Institute analysis, the average American could reduce their carbon footprint by 13% by cutting out red meat.

One way to make consuming more “climate-friendly” cuisine an easier behavioral switch, is to attach it to a more normalized part of your weekly routine. This is a psychological phenomenon called “Habit Stacking,” where attaching a new habit to an established routine may increase habit implementation and effectiveness. In this case, why not try and tackle the pinnacle of the American kickback — your weekly restaurant outing with friends or family? Speaking from personal experience, linking the emotions of trying a new restaurant with consuming more plant-based foods made it a fun part of my routine.

Dining out, but make it climate-friendly

To some, the phrase “vegan restaurant” is a bit of an oxymoron, but the vegan restaurant industry has grown significantly in the past few years. And if it’s any pull, Americans’ sentiment and interest in vegan dining can also be seen through google search trends.

Over the past decade, the search term “vegan restaurants” has hit an all-time high in 2018 and has seen decent recovery post-COVID.

Convinced yet? Vegan and vegetarian restaurants can be great alternatives to try something new for a weekly dining experience. If you’re curious to see the landscape of plant-based dining near you, an analysis of data on vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the United States tells us the most vegetarian-friendly cities.

If you’re from a big city, this top ten chart of the most vegetarian-friendly big cities (classified as top 25 metropolitan areas in the United States) might be useful to gauge the availability in your area. New York, LA, and SF top out this list.

To include all cities, no matter how small, into the mix, we can see the cities with an especially high number of vegetarian restaurants measured against the population. In this case, we’ve ranked chosen the cities with highest number of vegetarian restaurants for every 100,000 pop. Santa Fe, Eugene, and Ithaca top out this list.

The next time you’re traveling, remember this list. Who knows what vegetarian-friendly city you could make a pit stop at next!

What’s Next?

The verdict is clear: plant-based dining is the “climate-friendly” diet.

  • Plants contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions, while animal products are the worst offenders.
  • The simplest way is to incorporate more vegetables and less meat into your grocery bill, but another way to cleverly tie in behavioral cues to your activity is to explore some vegan and vegetarian restaurants as well.

Data sources:

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