The food industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and due to a growing population, the climate impact from food is increasing all the time. Deforestation for breaking new cropland, usage of machinery for harvesting and food processing as well as transportation of products are all examples of processes that generate greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, more than 20% of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to the food we put on our tables.
Different types of food have a different impact on the climate. In general, meat causes higher emissions than crops, since it is higher up the food chain. That means more energy is needed to produce meat, and some of it is lost on the way. Red meat is particularly troublesome, as cows produce a lot of methane. Consequently, also dairy products have quite a high impact on the climate. A comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from some common food products can be seen in the diagram below. The data is based on Nordic conditions.
By switching to a vegetarian diet it is possible to reduce one’s carbon footprint from food by 35%, from an average of 1800 kg CO2-eq per year to 1100 kg CO2-eq per year. A vegan diet only causes about 40% of the emissions of an average diet at 700 kg CO2-eq per year. What we eat is not the only thing that matters, though; how and where it is produced also make a difference. For example, tomatoes grown in greenhouses in Finland cause higher emissions than those grown outdoors in Spain and transported to Finland. On the other hand, local fruits that are in season only cause one third of the greenhouse gas emissions of imported ones.
It is good to keep in mind that our choice of diet is often affected by other factors than just the climate. Availability, price, personal taste and cultural factors also play an important role. Therefore, learning the order of magnitude of the climate impact of different food types is already a large first step.