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News spotlight: How does your diet affect the environment?

© Tessa Mildenhall

Every bite of food we eat comes with an environmental cost. But not every diet is created equal.

In an interactive feature from the Washington Post, reporters Niko Kommenda, Naema Ahmed, Scott Dance and Simon Ducroquet illustrate the toll our food system takes on nature — comparing the overall environmental footprint of dietary staples like meat, fish, dairy, eggs and grains. 

Readers are offered the opportunity to weigh the impact of various food sources against one another. It’s a valuable tool for any environmentally-conscious shopper that may find themselves mystified by conflicting information and the perplexing variety of organic and eco-friendly labels at the grocery store. 

The data comes from a recent study that quantifies how our meals contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, water use, pollution and habitat disturbance. In some cases, the results were as expected: On the whole, plant-based foods caused less ecological impact than those derived from animals. While red meat upheld its well-documented reputation as a massively resource-intensive contributor to climate change.

But other outcomes proved surprising, even to the researchers. They found that chicken scored better than expected while both wild-caught and farmed fish tallied up immense, but contrasting, environmental impacts. Farmed fish ranked poorly due to water-use and nutrient pollution, while many wild-caught varieties also rated badly because they are sometimes caught using bottom trawls — nets that drag along the ocean floor, destroying ecosystems and releasing carbon stored in sediments. 

“The data helps us understand how food can be produced more efficiently, while maximizing the nutrition it offers,” Jim Leape, an ocean expert at Stanford University, told the Washington Post. “There are a lot of opportunities here to meet the challenges of building a food system that offers both healthy diet and a lower footprint.” 

Transforming food systems is also at the heart of climate action. The destruction of forests for agriculture is the world’s second most significant source of greenhouse gases, behind fossil fuel emissions. And, globally, about a third of cropland is used to grow food for animals rather than for people. Grazing cattle, for example, requires large tracts of land, which fuels deforestation. The cattle themselves also produce massive amounts of methane, which is 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

“Changing the food we eat and how we grow it is critical to limiting global warming,” said Starry Sprenkle-Hyppolite, a scientist at Conservation International. “And everyone can play a role, from farmers to manufacturers to consumers.”

Recently, Conservation International released the Exponential Roadmap for Natural Climate Solutions, a comprehensive blueprint for harnessing the power of Earth’s grasslands, wetlands, forests — and, crucially, its working lands like farms — to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. In essence, it’s about changing the way we grow our food and fiber to help prevent climate change, rather than contribute to it. 

In many cases, this means implementing what is called regenerative agriculture — an approach to farming that works with nature, rather than against it. Think of it this way: The earth beneath our feet teems with life. In a single handful of soil there are billions of bacteria, many species of fungi, scores of microscopic creatures like nematodes, and animals like beetles, ants and earthworms. This hidden world is what keeps our soil healthy, fuels our food systems and stores climate-heating carbon — all of which makes life as we know it possible.

The report recommends a variety of “climate-smart” techniques to keep soils healthy and ensure food security: adding trees along the edges of croplands and pastures to provide carbon-storing benefits, practicing rotational grazing to minimize soil erosion, and seeding pastures with legumes to improve soil fertility and carbon absorption. Some of these practices are already seeing promising results in Africa, where Conservation International’s Herding 4 Health program is helping farmers across six countries — and more than 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of rangeland — implement climate-smart livestock farming techniques to restore the rangelands they depend on.

Read the full story here.

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Will McCarry is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.