Plants for the Planet—How Plant-Based Diets Can Truly Reduce Greenhouse Gases


When thinking globally, we no longer should simply eat only to feed ourselves, but in a way that can sustain the entire world. This is a pretty heavy burden to put on our plates at least three times a day, but it may be as simple as eating more plants.

About a year ago, research from the University of Minnesota identified increased global trends toward a “westernized” diet (one with highly processed and exorbitant levels of sugar, salt, fat and meat) as contributing to a huge increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as chronic health conditions. As mentioned in the paper, and now corroborated in a recent piece of research from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a mostly plant-based diet can go a long way towards reversing these dangerous effects.

But how hard is it to get eaters to shift more toward plants on the plate? The study, based on food diaries of a large cross section of people from the U.K., was encouraging, according to Brittany Patterson of Scientific American:

The changes—which the authors note are ultimately “relatively minor” and “realistic”—could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent."

They also examined some smaller shifts in dietary changes. For example, if everyone in the U.K. were to follow the World Health Organization’s dietary guidelines, then it would precipitate a 17% reduction in GHGs. In the U.S., the study found that switching to a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet could lower GHGs by 33% and a vegan diet weighed in as the champion with a whopping 53% reduction in GHGs. Cynics won’t be too shocked to know that following USDA guidelines would not make that much of a change. However it is worth noting that the new DGAC guidelines take climate impacts into account, and if the USDA chooses to change their recommendations based on these guidelines bigger changes could occur.


The benefits of eating mostly plants extend well beyond planetary and human health: they can also help better sustain a more-local food economy. Recent research out of the University of CA Merced conducted by Dr. Elliot Campbell examined our nation’s capacity to feed people with local food. Dr. Campbell found that diet matters. A UC Merced synopsis of the research notes:  

Diet can also make a difference. For example, local food around San Diego can support 35 percent of the people based on the average U.S. diet, but as much as 51 percent of the population if people switched to plant-based diets."

Perhaps most importantly, Campbell’s research showed that using food grown within a 50-mile radius would result in most areas of the country being able to feed between 80 and 100 percent of their populations. This is big and exciting news for the local food movement. Imagine the difference in the health of our nation and the economic development of rural economies that would result, as detailed in a great explanation of the benefits of local food systems from Michel Nischan on the Wholesome Wave homepage.

Eating more vegetables allows us to more easily support small to mid-size farmers and our local economy.These types of producers are inherently able to grow food in a more sustainable way for the planet, creating a positive feedback. More plants consumed = more local food sold = more sustainable production = healthier Earth = healthier people =  more plants consumed. And so on. One such model of the power of small-scale local production systems is embodied in the concept of Agroecology, which Lori Ann Thrupp, PhD, Executive Director of the Berkeley Food Institute at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, describes beautifully in this recent Huffington Post blog.

At the farm level, agroecology means developing and using economically viable practices that work with nature rather than against it. This means using practices—such as cover cropping—that enhance biodiversity, recycle nutrients, build healthy soils, and help adapt production to local resource conditions. It offers a systems approach to maximize interactions among crops, animals, soils, insects, and microorganisms. Agroecology offers several proven advantages: affordable ways for producers to intensify production while reducing chemical and fossil-fuel inputs; relying more on knowledge and labor as opposed to large capital investments; and ecological benefits for water, soil, natural pest control, and the climate."

Expanding on Thrupp’s last claim about how sustainable farming practices can help mitigate climate change, author Michael Pollan recently contributed to a piece in Vice in which he explained how “smart farming” practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and actually sequester carbon into the soil, potentially reversing carbon loading in the atmosphere. To close out his argument he recognizes the power in the paradigm shift that the sustainable food movement pushes:

As a civilization we're still locked into this zero-sum idea of our relationship with the natural world, so we assume that for us to get what we need, whether it's food or energy or even entertainment, nature has to be diminished. But this isn't necessarily the case. Carbon farming is one of the most hopeful things going on right now in climate-change research. This system, in which plants are secreting sugars into the soil, relies on the sun—photosynthesis—rather than fossil fuels. It demonstrates that there are non-zero-sum ways we can feed ourselves and heal the Earth."

Could it be that a choice as simple as occasionally swapping lentils for steak, and chickpeas for pork chops could save the health of the human race and the health of our planet? Overwhelming evidence now points toward a “yes.” Of course political, economic, geographical, and social justice factors make dietary shifts difficult for everyone, but this is yet another reason to work towards food justice. And, for those of us who have the means to change the way we eat but also have a hard time imagining a world without bacon, fear not, there are baby steps that we can all take towards this goal. For example Meatless Monday is an international movement, easy for all to join, that raises awareness of shifting to a plant-based without demanding that you miss out on Taco Tuesday's carne aside.

Image via Flickr


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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