Do you eat steak on the reg? How about asparagus? If you care about climate change and the environment, you might want to rethink your diet.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a list of the top 10 most climate-damaging foods as part of an in-depth report about climate change in the U.S. It turns out that seven of the top 10 worst foods for the environment are animal protein, with beef leading the way.
According to the NRDC, “If every American ate just one-third less beef per year, it would cut climate pollution equal to that created by 10 million cars every year.” (If you think about it, it really isn’t that hard to order a veggie burger once in a while.) Lamb comes in at number two on the list of most climate-damaging food.
The top two culprits make sense, considering cows and lamb require a lot of animal feed to fatten them up, and this feed is made up largely of “resource intensive” corn and soy. What’s more, cows and lamb “emit large volumes of methane, a climate-changing pollutant 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.” (In other words, these animals pass a lot of gas.)
To make matters worse, manure and synthetic fertilizer used in meat and dairy production release tons of climate-warming nitrous oxide, “a pollutant 298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide,” according to the NRDC.
While you might have already known that animal protein is damaging to the environment, one of the most surprising entries on the climate-damaging foods list is asparagus (the lone veggie in the top 10). The vegetable creates 8.9 kilos of emissions per kilo produced, thanks to the air miles required to import it to the U.S. from Latin America.
Another surprising entry on the list is cheese, which comes in fifth, at 9.8 kilos of emissions per kilo produced. The main problem with this food is that it requires refrigerated transportation to distribute. We know that’s a bummer, considering we love grilled cheeses too, especially when it involves imported cheeses flown in from many miles away.
The good news: Changes to the American diet between 2005 and 2014 avoided approximately 271 MMT (million metric tons) of climate-warming pollution, which is approximately the amount of pollution put out by 57 million car tailpipes over the course of a year.
Over the past decade, Americans have cut their beef consumption by 19 percent (nice work). Policy specialist in NRDC’s Food and Agriculture Program, Sujatha Jahagirdar, states, “As a nation, we have been increasingly eating less beef — a trend that’s not just better for our health, but the health of the planet.”
Jahagirdar argues that eating more plant-based foods and less animal products will undoubtedly help fight climate change. And there are many other benefits to going green aside from preserving the planet we live on; namely, people on plant-based diets enjoy health benefits like protection from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
But there’s still work to be done. America continues to eat more beef than almost any country, behind just Argentina and Uruguay. According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture accounts for as much as 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse emissions, and 65 percent of those emissions are a direct result of beef and dairy cattle.
Now that you know what foods do the most harm to the environment, you may want to rethink tonight’s dinner.
What Do YOU Think?
Will this information on climate-damaging foods inspire you to change your diet? What foods on the list are you most surprised by? Let us know in the comments below.
Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a journalist, essayist, and rumpshaker who’s written for the New York Times, The Week, NBC News, New York, and a wide variety of additional publications. She’s currently writing her first novel.