Our diets have a climate problem. Even if the world transforms into a green utopia by the middle of the century, global climate targets will be blown out of the water if we do not change what we eat and how we produce that food, according to research by the University of Oxford.
Meat and dairy are among the prime culprits, responsible for around 14 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have repeatedly shown that vegan and vegetarian diets are vastly better for the planet. But becoming a vegan is not the only way to eat a climate-friendly diet.
What does a climate-friendly diet look like?
In 2017, scientists from around the world came together to discuss whether it would be possible for everyone in the world to eat a healthy diet that included meat and dairy, without wrecking the planet.
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Professor Tim Lang, a food policy expert at City University London, was one of the 18 commissioners helping to draft the model diet.
“The problem we were thrown was an enormous one,” he tells i. “Could one feed nine to ten billion people on the planet by 2050 a healthy diet without screwing up the environment? Our answer was ‘yes’, but it requires the rich world to eat very differently and less, it requires everyone to waste far less, and it requires a dramatic shift in what is seen as an ideal diet.”
People in rich nations such as Britain would need to adopt a radically different way of eating, the experts concluded. The ‘Planetary Health’ diet they suggested relegates burgers and other red meat to a once-a-week treat, and limits dairy to the equivalent of one glass of milk a day. Vegetables and fruit should make up half of the total diet, and consumption of nuts and seeds should jump fifteen-fold.
“In simple terms, the message for Britain is less meat, less dairy,” says Professor Lang.
Work is already underway to convince people in Britain to embrace the Planetary Health recommendations. The Eating Better Alliance is an coalition of 60 civil society groups working to halve meat and dairy consumption in the UK by 2030.
“We think it is better for you, better for your health, better for animal welfare, better for the climate,” says chief executive Simon Billing. He is pushing for supermarkets and governments to make it easier for people to cut back on their meat and dairy consumption, such as by cutting the amount of meat used in ready meals.
Less meat, better meat
Not everyone agrees that the Planetary Health diet is right for the UK, however. There is a growing movement of British farmers championing the idea of “regenerative agriculture” as the basis of a green diet.
Nearly 10 billion tons of carbon are stored in the UK’s soil alone – equivalent to the global emissions emitted by all of humanity in one year. Under regenerative agricultural systems, land is farmed to preserve and improve that carbon-storing ability. Sometimes that will mean keeping land in permanent pasture with livestock grazing, or using pigs and chickens to prepare ground for crops.
The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) suggests this farming system could grow enough healthy food for the UK population while cutting agricultural emissions by almost 40 per cent. And beef and lamb would remain relatively plentiful, because their poo will fertilise the soil and keep uplands in use as productive farmland, the FFCC argues.
Dan Cox, former head chef at Fera in London, moved to Cornwall in 2017 to run Melilot, an organic farm. He champions the idea of regenerative agriculture, combining rotational grazing, cover crops, perennial planting and no-till systems as part of a single-minded focus to improve the soil quality on his land. His flock of 150 ewes are integral to that system, he insists.
“Everything is about trying to preserve and improve the health of the soil all of the time,” he tells i. “It’s not about saying we should eat less meat. We should be eating the right meat.”
Cows raised on grass pasture in the UK do have a lower carbon footprint than those reared on deforested land in Brazil. And farms such as Melilot boast higher levels of biodiversity and better welfare than industrial systems.
But a 2017 study by Oxford University found that even pasture-raised livestock are still net contributors to climate change.
“Ultimately, if high-consuming individuals and countries want to do something positive for the climate, maintaining their current consumption levels but simply switching to grass-fed beef is not a solution,” Food Climate Research Network leader Tara Garnett warned. “Eating less meat, of all types, is.”
Eat your greens
There is one thing every expert agrees on: vegetables are the key to eating a climate-friendly diet. Even the highest-carbon fruit and vegetables – such as air-freighted blueberries and asparagus – have a fraction of the carbon impact of meat and dairy. Under the Planetary Health diet, half of each plate of food is made up of fruit and vegetables.
Of course, locally grown, seasonal fruit and vegetables are generally the greenest choice. Veg box deliveries are a great way to take the hassle out of sourcing seasonal produce, and sales have soared during lockdown.
But what about all the other food staples for a healthy diet? The Planetary Health diet relies on grains, pulses and nuts as key protein sources, but rarely are they grown in the UK.
Claire Hargreaves, a food writer who focuses on sustainability, has pledged to eat only British produce for the whole of 2021. Although fruit and vegetables have been easy to source, she says she has struggled to find other types of produce. “We have an ideal climate for growing nuts, yet they’re as rare as hen’s teeth,” she tells i. “I have managed to find British cobnuts and walnuts, but only online.”
One company is working to change that. Hodmedod’s was founded in 2012 to revive the British grown-bean industry, selling dried fava beans online. It now sells goods from chickpeas to quinoa, flour, dried spices and oils, all grown on British soil.
Growing more of these foodstuffs in the UK gives shoppers a bigger say over their growing conditions, says co-founder Nick Saltmarsh. “The shorter the supply chain – the more direct the connection between what we eat and where it comes from – the more understanding we have of how it is produced and what the impacts are,” he explains.
There is a fast-track route to a more sustainable diet: stop throwing food away. In the UK alone, 4.5 million tons of edible food is thrown out by households every year. That comes with a huge carbon cost. “If you waste food,
you aren’t just wasting a slice of bread, or the skin of a jacket potato,” Helen White from the food waste charity Wrap tells i. “You’re wasting all those resources that went into it as well.”
The simplest way to cut back on food waste is to plan meals in advance, and check that fridge temperatures are set to between 0°C and 5°C to keep chilled food fresh for longer, says Christian Reynolds, a food policy expert at City University. “There are things you can do which aren’t drastic, but could have a little knock-on effect,” he says.
The question of what a sustainable diet looks like is not settled science. Debates continue over the role of grass-fed red meat, fish, out-of-season vegetables and processed foods like fake meat. But the broad recipe is clear: eat less meat and dairy, eat more vegetables, buy seasonal food and cut back on waste.
How to green your dinner plate
Cutting the carbon footprint of Britain’s favourite dishes. All figures for one portion.
Takeaway lamb, chicken and king prawn curries, rice and naan
Carbon footprint: 6kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent)
Ditching the meat and prawn dishes and opting for vegetarian curries can bring the carbon footprint of a takeout down to just 1kg CO2e per person, especially if you avoid high-carbon rice and don’t over-order.
(Source: ‘How Bad are Bananas?’ by Mike Berners-Lee, £9.99, Profile Books)
Carbon footprint: 3.2kg CO2e
Try switching to one of the new meat-like vegan burgers on the market, which brings the carbon footprint of your cheeseburger down to just 0.78kg CO2e, even when you include condiments, cheese and salad.
(Source: ‘How Bad are Bananas?’)
Roast beef with all the trimmings
Carbon footprint: 7kg CO2e
If you must have red meat for your Sunday roast, try to buy good-quality, pasture-raised British beef or lamb, and try to eat less of it – UK dietary guidance suggests a maximum of 70g of red meat per person per day. Focus on filling more of the plate with seasonal vegetables.
Spaghetti bolognese, made with beef mince
Carbon footprint: 3.9kg CO2e
Switching out half the mince for vegetarian mince such as Quorn cuts a bolognese’s carbon impact to 2.3kg CO2e per portion. Switching to using only Quorn mince brings it down to just 0.6kg CO2e.