Quantcast

20% of U.S. Diets Responsible for Almost Half of Country’s Food-Related Emissions, Study Finds

Food
Mity / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you've been deliberating about going vegetarian, a study published Tuesday in Environmental Letters might give you the final push.


The study was the first to look at the environmental impact of individual diets in the U.S., and found that 20 percent of Americans account for 46 percent of the country's food-related greenhouse-gas emissions. Seventy percent of the emissions that resulted from the diets of that 20 percent came from meat consumption, according to a press release about the study published by the University of Michigan on EurekAlert!.

The consumption of beef accounted for 72 percent of the difference between the highest and lowest 20 percent of emitters, the release also reported. Overall, the top 20 percent of diets caused 7.9 times the greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom.

"A big take home message for me is the fact that high-impact diets are such a large part of the overall contribution to food-related greenhouse gases," the study's lead author and University of Michigan researcher Martin Heller said in the release.

To obtain these results, researchers at the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability and Tulane University's Department of Global Community Health and Behavioral Sciences calculated the impact of individual diets by determining the greenhouse gas emissions and non-renewable cumulative energy demand of 332 food commodities in the Food Commodities Intake Database developed by the Environmental Protection Agency. These were linked to the recollections of more than 16,000 Americans of their previous day's diet collected by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2005 to 2010. The study focused only on food-production-related emissions and did not include packaging, cooking, freezing, distribution or processing, factors Heller said in the release could raise total emissions by at least 30 percent.

While the study confirmed previous research finding that meat and dairy contribute the most to U.S. diet-related emissions overall, it also found that beverages, including water, coffee, tea, soft drinks and alcohol, played a larger role than expected, accounting for almost 6 percent of emissions and 16 percent of non-renewable cumulative energy demand.

According to the release, the top 20 percent of dietary emitters also consumed two times as many calories as the bottom 20 percent. However, when the data was adjusted for caloric intake, the top quintile was still responsible for five times the emissions of the bottom.

For Heller, the results indicated that individual dietary choices can make a difference in reducing national emissions.

If that top 20 percent, representative of 44.6 million Americans, reduced the greenhouse gas emissions of their diet to the national average every day, and production followed suit, that would account for 9.6 percent of the emissions reductions needed for the U.S. to meet its 2025 commitments under the Paris agreement, the study found. According to the release, food production was responsible for about 8 percent of U.S. emissions in 2010.

"Reducing the impact of our diets—by eating fewer calories and less animal-based foods—could achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It's climate action that is accessible to everyone, because we all decide on a daily basis what we eat," Heller said in the release.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Trump speaks to contractors at the Shell Chemicals Petrochemical Complex on Aug. 13 in Monaca, Pennsylvania. Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

Thousands of union members at a multibillion dollar petrochemical plant outside of Pittsburgh were given a choice last week: Stand and wait for a speech by Donald Trump or take the day off without pay.

Read More Show Less
Regis Lagrange / EyeEm / Getty Images

By Ariane Lang, BSc, MBA

Lemon (Citrus limon) is a common citrus fruit, alongside grapefruits, limes, and oranges (1).

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A zero-emission electric car in Vail, Colorado on July 31. Sharon Hahn Darlin / CC BY 2.0

By Simon Mui

States across the country are stepping up to make clean cars cheaper and easier to find. Colorado's Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) voted Friday to adopt a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program that will increase the availability of electric vehicles in the state, improve air quality and increase transportation affordability.

Read More Show Less
Aerial view of lava flows from the eruption of volcano Kilauea on Hawaii, May 2018. Frizi / iStock / Getty Images

Hawaii's Kilauea volcano could be gearing up for an eruption after a pond of water was discovered inside its summit crater for the first time in recorded history, according to the AP.

Read More Show Less
An internally displaced woman flees from drought in Dollow, Somalia. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

By Annemieke Tsike-Sossah

World Humanitarian Day offers an opportunity to take stock of where the world stands on addressing humanitarian issues and highlight lessons for how to improve in the future. Here are five ways we all can commit to driving positive change for the world.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A view from the top of Ok volcano in Iceland, where the Okjokull glacier used to be located. Drepicter / Getty Images Plus

Officials, activists and scientists gathered in Iceland Sunday for the funeral of the nation's first glacier to fall victim to the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
picture-alliance / Xinhua / Then Chih Wey

Some 183 nations are set to discuss possibly loosening elephant and ivory exports at the World Wildlife Conference on trade in endangered species, known as CITES, which is meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

Read More Show Less
This picture taken on May 23 shows Marium swimming in the waters in southern Thailand. SIRACHAI ARUNRUGSTICHAI / AFP / Getty Images

Marium, an 8-month-old dugong who became an internet sensation in Thailand this spring, died after ingesting plastic, officials announced Saturday.

Read More Show Less