Climate and Food: We’re Asking the Wrong Question

Mitigating climate change does not hinge on changing our diets, but on improving food production so we can sustainably eat the foods we love.

Source: PxHere

“If chicken is so much less carbon intensive than beef, but still carries a whole bunch of environmental issues of its own, what are environmentalists supposed to make of that when they look at their own diets?”

The question isn’t something I was wondering. I’m already contemplating where my next steak will come from. But when it comes to climate change and food, people always seem to ask me how to change their diet for the better. Even if they won’t actually do it, they’re curious: how can I fix the problem?

So I asked Zdravka Tzankova in last week’s interview. Her response? “That’s the wrong question.”

That’s not the first time I heard that response. When I asked Julie Zähringer about the role of vanilla in our diets, she said, “No! Eat natural vanilla!” When I asked Natalie Hunt about the role of corn in our diets, she said she’d never even thought about corn that way.

I don’t believe any of them mean to say that people can’t make an impact with their diets. But it’s a weird question. If we look at chicken in isolation, sure it might make sense to cut back, but what are we eating then? Beef? Then you’ve got to contend with methane belching and land use change. Shrimp? How’s the mangrove that the shrimp came from faring? Even tofu comes from soybeans, which are a prime cause of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest.

There simply isn’t a perfect diet. You can certainly improve your carbon footprint by cutting back beef or taking on a mediterranean, vegetarian, or vegan diet, but when you hear in our Tea episode that there are some harmful pesticides involved in tea agriculture, I would hope that cutting back tea wasn’t the first thought that crossed your mind.

So allow me to offer a different question about food: how can we make this food’s environmental impact better?

There are much less carbon-intensive, fertilizer-intensive, and pesticide-intensive farming practices out there. Often, they’re actually cheaper. On a large scale, you as an individual can play a part by engaging in discussions about improving the agriculture sector and advocating for policies you’d like to see (and of course, spreading the word about The Sweaty Penguin!). In your own lives, learning about certification schemes and purchasing foods with trustworthy certifications when possible can provide peace of mind if you’re concerned about the impact of your diet. That’s not to say changing your diet won’t help, but the impact isn’t so much in the food. It’s in the conversation you start with the person sitting next to you when they ask why you made a certain choice. You probably won’t get them to change their diet, but you might get them to learn something new, support a good policy, or tell others about your conversation. And the great thing is that if you don’t want to change your diet, you can still start those conversations. I love eating a steak while talking about how beef production could be improved!

So next time there’s a food episode, don’t worry. Unless it’s Hawaiian pizza, I’m not going to tell you to stop eating it. Tune in, and we’ll figure out a way to make that food better.

Like it? Share with your friends!

Ethan Brown

Ethan is a recent graduate of Boston University from Bethel, Connecticut with a dual degree in Environmental Analysis & Policy and Film & Television.


Leave a Reply

  1. 77% of soy is used for farm animal feed! Humans only eat about 7% of all soy grown. That means that if we switched to a fully plant based food system, the Amazon would not be needed for the amount of soy that would be needed. Beef and soy is why the Amazon is being burned, but soy consumption by humans is not the force driving it. Brazil is one of the top exporters of beef and soy.

    “In the hypothetical scenario in which the entire world adopted a vegan diet the researchers estimate that our total agricultural land use would shrink from 4.1 billion hectares to 1 billion hectares.”-Our World in Data Mar 4, 2021

    That is a 75% drop in the land needed for food production!

  2. Going vegan is the single most effective way for each of us to minimize our environmental footprint.
    “According to the most comprehensive analysis of farming’s impact on the planet, plant-based food is most effective at combatting climate change. Oxford University researcher Joseph Poore, who led the study, said adopting a vegan diet is “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”

    “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”. -Joseph Poore, Environmental Science Researcher, University of Oxford.

    Joseph Poore switched to a plant based diet after seeing the results of the study.