- How agriculture and climate change are related
- The protein we eat
- The effect on your health
- What should be done?
It’s no secret we’re living through a period of unprecedented and catastrophic climate change. And every day, serious problems from the crisis become more apparent.
The climate crisis affects almost every aspect of our life. One of the most important is the food we eat – what we farm and how it’s produced can create more greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn speed up climate change and make the situation even worse.
Our food choices affect the climate in many ways. The amount and kinds of protein we consume can have a significant impact on the climate.
U.S. agriculture causes at least 10 percent of the country’s entire annual emissions of greenhouse gases, like methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, which trap heat in the atmosphere, causing and exacerbating climate change.
Add emissions from fertilizer production, plus clearing and plowing land to grow crops, and agriculture’s net share of emissions is even higher than 10 percent and is increasing.
Fruit and vegetables aren’t the culprits behind crop-related emissions. It’s the crops grown for animal feed, like corn, and the animals themselves.
That’s why emissions that make the climate emergency worse can be traced directly to the types of protein we eat, especially beef and dairy, and how much. The greater the demand for this protein, the more land gets cleared to grow corn to feed animals, and the more carbon is released from the soil into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
Fertilizing those crops with chemical fertilizers produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that’s 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Animals eat feed from the crops and belch and produce manure, which generates another greenhouse gas methane.
And here’s the kicker: Demand for protein, including beef and dairy, is expected to grow. Because of this rising demand, emissions from animals and production of their feed could easily account for a third of U.S. emissions by 2050.
And more emissions lead to more climate change.
Your health, and not just the climate, is also at stake.
High levels of nitrate in drinking water from fertilizer and manure runoff have been linked to cancer and “blue baby syndrome.” Runoff also causes harmful toxic algae blooms, and producing meat generates high levels of deadly air pollution. The overuse of life-saving antibiotics to protect animals raised in crowded conditions makes bacteria more resistant.
Limiting agriculture’s impact as a source of harmful emissions may help. One potentially beneficial innovation is better management of fertilizer and animal feed.
The Build Back Better infrastructure bill passed by the House of Representatives in November was a positive development – it includes billions of dollars in incentives for farmers to make production changes that will lower emissions. These changes could alter the amount and timing of chemical fertilizer use, ensuring more of it gets used by the crop rather than running off fields and polluting waterways. Or the changes could alter how animals are fed and how their manure is dealt with in order to reduce methane emissions.
Policymakers in Washington, and the states, must help agriculture to make these changes.
You also play a role. Start by looking for alternatives to the most damaging types of protein, or even just eat less of it. Swap in a different type of protein once or twice a week – like beans or lentils, which produce fewer emissions overall.
Per kilogram, beef emits more than eight times as many carbon emissions as fish, almost 32 times as much as tofu, and 231 times as much as nuts. New plant-based proteins that are similar in taste and texture to animal-based proteins are also increasingly available.
In fact, if enough consumers consume less meat and dairy, we may be able to meet our climate goals. It can also help consumers save money.
Simply eating less protein is also an option, since studies have shown that Americans consume far more of it than is necessary for a healthy diet.
But our best bet is a combination of solutions – reducing our consumption of animal proteins, rethinking how we raise farm animals, changing how we grow animal feed, reducing food waste and using less fertilizer. There’s no silver bullet – doing many different things is our only path to addressing agriculture’s role in the climate crisis.
This post was updated March 22, 2022.