How does our diet affect climate change?

Published: 10th October 2023 | Written by: Grace Coles

Climate change and the food we eat are closely linked. Rising temperatures, increased rain and extreme weather events threaten the security of our food supply as they affect crops and livestock. But food production also contributes to climate change.

The negative impact of livestock farming

Livestock farming contributes to global warming through the release of methane and nitrous oxide, as well as through the amount of land taken up that could be used to grow food directly for us to eat or returned to nature to remove CO2 from the air.

In 2021, less than 1% of agricultural land in the UK was used for growing fruit and vegetables – we import 50% of vegetables and 84% of fruit, according to Defra.

Livestock take up large areas of land both for grazing and for growing animal feed – land that could be used to grow cereals, vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts for human consumption. Marginal land that is not suitable for growing crops could instead be returned to nature, with restored woodlands, peatlands and wetlands storing carbon and helping prevent flooding.
By adopting a more plant-based diet, we can produce far more food than we do now, on less land, and feed far more people.

Reducing meat and dairy in our diet makes a positive impact

In the UK we eat about twice the international average amount of meat and almost three times the dairy. One of the simplest and most effective ways to limit our impact on nature and the climate is to reduce meat and dairy in our diet, and eat more plant protein, including beans, peas and nuts that can be grown in the UK. Beans and peas need very little or no fertiliser. Nuts have a negative carbon footprint as the trees remove CO2 from the air as they grow.

A more plant-based diet will increase our fibre intake while reducing fat content, with benefits to our health. The good news is that including beans, chickpeas and lentils in the daily diet has been found to lower blood pressure and reduce coronary heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer. And of course, we all know that eating more vegetables is good for us.

However, we don’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach. Just cutting our meat and dairy intake by 30% will make a big difference and does not require a complete change in our diet.

How to reduce your meat intake

  • Try eating plant-based meals on certain days of the week – Meat-free Monday is a popular one.
  • Enjoy your favourite meat dishes but with smaller portions, substituting some of the meat with protein-rich pulses or extra vegetables.
  • Experiment with some of the meat substitutes which are now readily available (but look out for saturated fats and high salt content – preparing your own tasty veggie meal is likely to be the healthiest option).