“Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods … and animal-sourced food produced in resilient, sustainable and low-[greenhouse gas] emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health,” the new report says.
Food waste and meat consumption are big contributors to global warming, with food waste producing between 8% and 10% and livestock 14.5% of global emissions, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
This is partly because raising animals for food is resource-intensive, requiring the production of feed and fertilizers that result in greenhouse gases — not to mention the methane that comes from cows. It also requires land to be cleared for cattle.
While the report is largely geared toward policymakers, experts say there are things consumers can do to help curb the vicious cycle of climate change and land degradation.
Making healthy choices
Palmer, who was not involved in this research, said that “drastically reducing animal food intake and mostly eating plant foods is one of the most powerful things you can do to reduce your impact on the planet over your lifetime.”
According to the latest report by the United Nations panel, plant-based foods may include those based on coarse grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Palmer explained that “legumes [or pulses], such as beans, lentils and peas are the most sustainable protein source on the planet. They require very small amounts of water to grow; they can grow in harsh, dry climates; they grow in poor nations, providing food security; and they act like a natural fertilizer, capturing nitrogen from the air and fixing it in the soil. Thus, there is less need for synthetic fertilizers. These are the types of protein sources we need to rely upon more often.”
There’s a role for policymakers to play, according to the new report, in crafting programs — including financial incentives and awareness campaigns — that influence food demand, potentially lowering health-care costs and greenhouse gas emissions in one fell swoop. Food companies can also make changes at the industry level, according to experts.
“And all of us can collectively have an impact through the dietary choices we make every day,” writes Bergen, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Meat me in the middle
By some estimates, only about 2% of American adults are vegetarians.
So if you are not ready to give up meat entirely, experts say that a so-called flexitarian diet can incorporate plenty of fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein sources. This may include legumes, soybeans and nuts, along with modest amounts of poultry, fish, milk and eggs, and small amounts of red meat.
The key, experts say, is not just cutting out the meat but swapping in plant-based proteins like nuts, beans and lentils.
An easy way to get started on diets that are largely plant-based, such as the Mediterranean diet, is to cook one meal each week based on beans, whole grains and vegetables, using herbs and spices to add punch, Al Bochi says. When one night a week is a breeze, add two, and build your non-meat meals from there.
Waste not, want not
According to the new report, 25% to 30% of all food produced is never eaten, but 821 million people worldwide are undernourished.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States and China, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, a nonprofit working to reduce global waste. The organization’s head of food, Claire Kneller, said “the fact that more than 1 billion tonnes of food never gets consumed while 1 in 9 people go to bed hungry is a travesty.”
Less food waste means less land and resources needed for farming, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions, the report says.
And there are “knock-on carbon benefits” that come along with not having to transport, process, retail, package and refrigerate all this extra food, according to an emailed statement by Eugene Mohareb, a lecturer in sustainable urban systems at the University of Reading in the UK.
Mohareb, who was not involved in the new report, said the goals of reducing food waste and shifting toward plant-based nutrition can go hand-in-hand.
“The emphasis on plant-based diets similarly has further benefits in the shifting from perishable animal products to pulses & legumes,” he said. “These benefits include reduced cold storage requirements (throughout the supply chain, at food retailers, as well as in households) and reduced potential for food wastage due to their generally longer shelf life.”
A terrible thing to waste
The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends planning meals, keeping a shopping list with quantities and buying only what you need.
“Buying in bulk only saves money if you are able to use the food before it spoils,” the EPA says.
And don’t forget to look in your fridge or cupboards before shopping to avoid buying stuff you already have around the house, the agency adds. If you have more of something than you’ll need, you can always donate to a food pantry nearby.
It’s also important to read labels closely; confusion over “best if used by,” “sell by” and expiration dates is estimated to cause a fifth of consumer food waste, the agency says.
At restaurants, you can ask for smaller portions or a takeaway box to prevent waste and eating too much, the FDA adds. You can reserve part of your fridge for things that need to be eaten in the next few days.
And when some food is past its prime but still useable, experts recommend getting creative: Stale bread? Make croutons. Vegetable scraps? Make soup stock.
CNN’s Isabelle Gerretsen, Jacqueline Howard, Sandee LaMotte, Thomas Page, Lisa Drayer and Nina Avramova contributed to this report.