Ever wonder how much it matters to eat locally produced organic foods? From a climate change standpoint, turns out what you put on your plate matters a lot more than where it came from. Specifically, avoiding lamb and beef (+ other red meats) will score you the most climate brownie points. This is partly because sheep and cows are not particularly efficient at converting the vegetable protein they eat into animal protein in their muscles (so you need a lot of grain to produce a little bit of lamb and beef). But another important factor is the fact that sheep and cows are ruminant mammals, which during food digestion produce large amounts of methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than CO2.
Since dairy products also come from ruminants, they suffer the same methane emissions problem, though to a lesser degree which varies depending on the type of dairy product. Cheese looks a lot worse than yogurt and milk, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which fashioned the spiffy graph you see above.
A study out of Carnegie Mellon University compared eating local to eating less red meat, and concluded that “shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food.” Yes, that’s all locally sourced food, as in everything you eat (bananas and coffee included) comes from your friendly farmer down the road.
We point this out not because we don’t love the ethos behind local and organic as much as your average treehugger. There are still plenty of compelling reasons to eat local and organic, like reduced chemical pesticide and fertilizer use, building community, supporting your local farmers, and becoming more connected to your food. Organic farming does have climate benefits, which can come from eliminating chemical fertilizers (made from fossil fuels) and no-till cultivation techniques that enhance carbon storage in the soil. The Carnegie study also showed that eating local can have significant climate benefits, but since only 11% of the climate impact of food comes from transportation, there’s not a whole lot of room for improvement.
So you don’t have to become vegetarian overnight, but if you fancy yourself a mealtime climate warrior then cutting back on your red meat intake should rise high on your to-do list. You can join the “Meat Free Monday” movement, or (if you’re feeling a bit more ambitious) become a “Weekday Vegetarian.” Regardless of where you live, typing “vegetarian” into Yelp will find great options down the street, and that magical system of tubes called the Internet is also awash with advice and recipes for cutting down on meat without your taste-buds skipping a beat.