How to eat a low-carbon, environmentally friendly diet

You've heard of eating locally, but what about eating to reduce your overall carbon footprint? Our food columnist Andrew Coppolino explains how to do it.

Why eating lentils from Saskatchewan could be better for the environment than local beef

Summer fruits and vegetables are in season and worth the wait to get them fresh from your local Hamilton Farmers' Markets. (CBC)

While I don't always follow it intensely, I am generally a fan of the so-called "100-mile diet." I believe that this approach to eating, which appeared as a popular non-fiction book written jointly by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon about 10 years ago, is important from the perspectives of freshness, taste, food safety and supporting local economies. However, adhering to geographic limitations for your diet may ignore ways of reducing your carbon footprint.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo (UW) have been looking at diets in Ontario with an eye to gauging the environmental impacts and carbon contribution of what people in the province eat.

Goretty Dias is a professor in the UW School of Environment, Enterprise and Development. She and one of her students, Anastasia Veeramani, who submitted her master's thesis in August, have found that what we eat has more of an impact on the environment than where the food travelled from. And that, specifically, means meat and dairy products.

Cutting back on meat can do more to help reduce your carbon footprint than eating locally, according to researchers. (CBC)

"Despite the emphasis there is on food miles, they don't have as much of an impact as what we eat. So anything we do to reduce our meat consumption, especially beef, pork and milk products, will reduce the impact because they are very carbon intensive," says Dias.

Examining data from 14,000 Ontario residents from a Statistics Canada survey, Veeramani found that in general people in Ontario are eating twice the amount of protein recommended in Canada's Food Guide.

We can juxtapose Veeramani's recent thesis research with the 2015 Paris Climate Conference which begins November 30 and focuses the world's attention on climate change and global warming. It's important for us as individuals at a local level to recognize and understand our consumption habits and the impacts they have on the environment.

The biggest culprit in carbon contributions are cattle and not their transportation, which only accounts for under five percent of beef's carbon footprint, according to the researchers.

Cows produce a lot of carbon

Cows are carbon-intensive, and produce a lot of methane and carbon dioxide, both greenhouse gases. (@AngelaMatchim/Twitter)

Cattle produce a lot of methane and carbon dioxide, but cattle in neighbouring Wellesley, here in Waterloo Region, produce about the same amount as do cattle in Alberta. So transporting cattle from a few provinces away has a relatively small impact on carbon contribution, Dias says.

Rather, the beef system and the dairy system are huge and difficult to change because the emissions that contribute to greenhouse gases are from the cattle themselves and not just the production system. Cattle are large, carbon-intensive creatures, and they are inefficient at converting their food to our food.

So what you eat is probably more important than where it comes from, if you want to reduce your carbon contribution. We can have a positive impact by changing the way we eat.

For instance, eating meat a few times fewer a week can help reduce your impact. As well, making a decision to eat grass-fed beef can make a difference, Dias says, because while it is still beef, it is produced more sustainably and has less of an environmental impact. There's less less potential for eutrophication, and better biodiversity. It's better for the animals' welfare, too.

How to balance out your diet

Balancing your diet by reducing the sources of protein, from meat and milk-based products to lentils and tofu for example, can also help, Dias says in citing Veeramani's work.

"What she did was look at balancing the diet according to Canada's Food Guide and reducing the amount of protein from meat. What happened to the highest-impact beef and omnivore diets was a 35 per cent decrease in carbon footprint. It's much more than you can do than just reducing food miles," says Dias.

That's a significant reduction, and it shows that while eating local might be better for some aspects of sustainability, it might not be the case for reducing your carbon footprint.

Ultimately, I don't think we need to remove meat and dairy from our diets to make a difference, but reducing the animal proteins and replacing them with proteins derived from foods like lentils and tofu can have an impact.

As the UW researchers note, it's a case of lentils from Saskatchewan perhaps being "better" for the environment than local beef from the farm in your community. And that in turn is all about the choices we make in what we eat.


  • An earlier version of this story stated that eating grass-fed beef is better for the environment because there's less nutrification (adding nutrients to food), and better biodiversity. In fact, the sentence should say that there's less potential for eutrophication as well as greater biodiversity.
    Nov 26, 2015 1:55 PM ET


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.