Editor’s Note: “Fighting Climate Change with Sustainable Food Choices” was written by Dr. Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RD, LD.
Climate change is one of the most urgent issues that humanity faces. This urgency is front and center in Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and climate change, where he frames climate change as an issue of justice and morality. The encyclical, titled “Laudato Si” (Praise Be to You), calls for swift action on climate change. Within the encyclical, Pope Francis reviews the scientific basis demonstrating that climate change is happening now and that it is largely man-made. He notes that the poor, children, the elderly, and people in developing countries are most vulnerable.1 There are many steps that individuals can take to have a positive impact on the environment and be a part of a ‘climate for change.’2 Several important steps are outlined below:
Incorporate More Plant-based Meals into Your Diet. A University of Minnesota study suggests that eating less meat, less refined fat, and less sugar will reduce the climate change impacts of food production. The authors conclude that the solution to the “diet-environment-health trilemma” requires choosing menus high in plant-based whole foods such as those found in Mediterranean, pescatarian (a vegetarian diet that includes seafood), or vegetarian diets.3,4 Individuals who want to adopt a gradual transition to plant-based eating can do so by participating in the Meatless Monday campaign or by becoming vegetarian one day a week. Here are a few sample vegetarian menus to get you started.
Reduce Food Waste. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted. Food waste is the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste and is the third largest source of U.S. methane emissions. Just a 15 percent reduction in food waste would save enough food to feed 25 million Americans annually.5 Some quick tips to reduce food waste include:
- Write a list before going to the supermarket
- Purchase less than perfect looking produce
- Learn to understand sell-by and best-before dates in the marketplace
- Use up your leftovers
- Bring older items to the front of your refrigerator and food cupboards
- Turn waste into garden food (For example, use a compost bin for fruit and vegetable peelings, and for cooked food waste use a kitchen composter [bokashi bin].6)
Choose Organically-Produced Foods. It is estimated that approximately one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. These emissions are produced by more than the tractors and trucks. Emissions come from direct energy use, the manufacturing of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, livestock bodily functions, use of machinery and equipment, as well as soil degradation and changes in land use.7 A recent study by Chinese scientists found that replacing synthetic fertilizer with organic manure resulted in significantly decreased greenhouse gas emissions. These researchers concluded that switching to organic manure reversed the agriculture ecosystem from a carbon source to a ‘carbon sink,’ i.e., increased soil carbon storage capacity.8 In 2014, the Rodale Institute published a white paper on regenerative, organic agriculture and climate change and concluded that if all cropland were converted to a regenerative organic model – using practices such as low or no tillage, cover crops, and crop rotation – it could potentially sequester 40% of annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Changing global pastures to this same regenerative organic model would result in an additional 71% of CO2 sequestration – essentially resulting in a reversal of the greenhouse effect.9
Support and Celebrate Healthy Soils. Healthy food starts with healthy soils. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has declared 2015, The International Year of Soils.10 Healthy soils will help the U.S. solve growing food and water insecurity problems, as was noted in a Congressional hearing in April.11 Use of regenerative organic farming practices that rebuild soil carbon will help communities become more resilient in the face of escalating climate-related challenges such as drought and floods.12 To learn more about healthy soils, view the Save Our Soils (SOS) campaign, which aims to raise consumer awareness about the importance of soil for our health, food security, nutrition, and the climate. As part of this campaign, there is a toolkit with numerous promotional materials available. And be sure to celebrate Healthy Soil Week, September 5-12, 2015. For more information, see http://saveoursoils.com/downloads.html.
About the author: Dr. McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RD, LD is a consultant, speaker and writer with areas of expertise in community food security, public health nutrition and sustainable food systems. You can learn more about her work at www.sustainablerdn.com.
- Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis, On Care for Our Common Home. Rome, Italy: the Vatican; June 18th 2015. Accessed June 20th 2015. Available at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.
- Hayhoe K, Farley A. A Climate for Change: Global Warming for Faith-Based Decisions. New York, New York: Faith Words, Hachette Book Group; 2009:141-149.
- Tillman, D, Clark M. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature. 2014; 515:518-522.
- Grossman, E. Mostly plants: new science says a healthier diet is best for the climate. Civil Eats. November 12th 2014. Accessed June 18th 2015. Available at: http://civileats.com/2014/11/12/eat-your-veg-new-science-says-a-healthier-diet-is-best-for-the-climate.
- Gunders D. Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Washington DC: Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Issue Paper. August 2012. Available at: http://www.nrdc.org/food/wasted-food.asp
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Toolkit: Reducing the Food Wastage Footprint. Rome, Italy: FAO; 2013. Accessed June 19th 2015. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3342e/i3342e.pdf
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Organic Farming and Climate Change Mitigation. A Report of the Round Table on Organic Agriculture and Climate Change. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); December 2011. Accessed June 19th 2015. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/015/i2537e/i2537e00.pdf
- Liu H, Li J, Zheng Y, et al. Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions through replacement of chemical fertilizer with organic manure in a temperate farmland. Sci. Bull. 2015. DOI 10.1007/s11434-014-0679-6
- The Rodale Institute. Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming (White Paper). Kutztown, PA: The Rodale Institute. April 2014. Accessed June 20 2015. Available at: http://rodaleinstitute.org/regenerative-organic-agriculture-and-climate-change/
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2015, International Year of Soils (healthy soils for a healthy life). Accessed June 20th 2015. Available at: http://www.fao.org/soils-2015/en/
- Donlon D. Soil celebrated on Capitol Hill as part of International Year of Soil 2015. Center for Food Safety (blog). April 20th 2015. Accessed June 19th 2015. Available at: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/blog/3853/soil-celebrated-on-capitol-hill-as-part-of-international-year-of-soil-2015
- Donlon D. Soil & Carbon. Soil Solutions to Climate Problems. Washington DC: Center for Food Safety. April 2015. Accessed June 19th 2015. Available at: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/reports/3846/soil-and-carbon-soil-solutions-to-climate-problems