Local, seasonal, less meat: Reduce the carbon footprint of your food


By Agency
  • Climate
  • Thursday, 27 May 2021

If you want to eat in a climate-friendly way, you don't have to give up meat completely. But if possible, it should come from regional animals kept in organic-level conditions. Photo: Stefan Jaitner/dpa

Fewer plane trips, using public transport and careful use of water are well-known ways to help combat climate change – but too many of us forget just how much a difference we can make by altering our eating habits.

Eating less meat and buying organic food sums it up, says Michael Bilharz of Germany's Federal Environment Agency. "We should definitely eat less meat," says author Malte Rubach, though he adds,"no one has to become an ascetic."

For people in the West, food can account for up to a third of a household's carbon footprint. In a European country like Germany, the average carbon footprint for food is around 1.7 tonnes per person per year, of those who eat a mixed diet, says Bilharz.

That figure falls to 1.3 to 1.4 tonnes for vegetarians, and one tonne for vegans, he says.Reducing the carbon footprint on your dinner plate doesn't mean making an extra effort. You just need to know where not to overdo it. Photo: Christin Klose/dpaReducing the carbon footprint on your dinner plate doesn't mean making an extra effort. You just need to know where not to overdo it. Photo: Christin Klose/dpa

The most carbon is released by products made from ruminants, meaning mainly beef but also cheese and other dairy products, followed by pork and chicken.

For anyone who's interested, the Planetary Health Diet can serve as a guide. It's designed to make sure everyone can get enough to eat without pushing the planet to its limits.

The diet suggests a daily maximum of 300g of meat per person, ideally poultry or pork. The German Nutrition Society, meanwhile, suggests no more than 300-600g per week.

"Above all, the meat should be produced regionally," says Rubach.

The planetary diet foresees one and a half to three litres of milk or up to 300g of cheese and three to four eggs per week.Buying more local, organic vegetables is probably the best way to start when trying to reduce your diet's carbon footprint. Photo: Bernd Settnik/dpaBuying more local, organic vegetables is probably the best way to start when trying to reduce your diet's carbon footprint. Photo: Bernd Settnik/dpa

The diet upgrades legumes and grain to become people's main source of protein, Bilharz says.

It isn't easy and Bilharz acknowledges that consumers could also reach their limits trying to work out where each and every single product comes from. Even the experts struggle to work out every single detail.

He warns against making food into a bog problem, saying from anorexia to obesity, it's already a source of difficulties for many.

But climate-friendly and healthy eating can go hand in hand, Bilharz says. "Eat a plant-based diet as much as possible, make sure you have fibre, reduce animal fats, and eat lots of vegetables and fruits, preferably organic."If you want to do your bit to protect the climate, you should eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, preferably from the region and organic. Photo: Sebastian Willnow/dpaIf you want to do your bit to protect the climate, you should eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, preferably from the region and organic. Photo: Sebastian Willnow/dpa

Organic products are better as there are tougher restrictions on the ingredients and additives, Bilharz says, including meat or dairy substitutes.

If you're in the European Union, then the EU organic label can make life more straightforward for shoppers. Consumers who want to dive deeper into the issue can compare the different criteria covered by different labelling.

Also, it's a good idea to drink tap water, for those in countries where it's safe, says Bilharz. Drinks often come second, after meat, in terms of contributors to carbon emissions.

But environmental protection is not a solely individual task, but one that is shared, says Bilharz. What counts is less what each individual eats than the overall results at the end of the year. – dpa

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