So first thing to know is that a low-carbon diet is not a low-carb diet, though it is commonly mistaken as such. Low-carbon is a lifestyle choice centered around reducing the impact of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe). While choosing this diet one is hoping to develop a sustainable diet that increases the long-term sustainability of humanity.
The U.S. food system is responsible for at least 20% of greenhouse gases in the U.S.. Products coming from other countries are often not counted which means this may be a low estimation. Only direct sources of GHGe count. The goal of a low-carbon diet is to limit the release of emissions of production, packaging, processing, transporting, preparation and waste of food. This can be achieved by eating locally grown foods that are in season along with local raised livestock, as well as reducing waste from foods that are processed and packaged.
Beef and dairy cattle produce particularly high levels of greenhouse gas emissions due to the type of feed. It has been confirmed that this is a contributor to the raised emission levels. Animal Feeding Operations or factory farms, such as corn or soy beans must be fertilized, irrigated, processed into animal feed, packaged and then transported to the Concentrated and Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), defines intensive Animal Feeding Operations (AFO) as those in which over 1000 “animals unit”, defined as 1000 pounds of “live” animal weight, are confined for more than 45 days a year. A thousand animal unit equates to:
- 1,000 cows
- 700 cows for daily purposes
- 2,500 pigs that weigh over 55 pounds each
- 125,000 chickens
- 82,000 egg laying hens
As of 2016 there were over 212,000 AFOs in the United States, 19,496 of which were CAFOs, which are governed by regulations that restrict how much waste can be distributed and the quality of the waste. Livestock production has been increasing every year and is becoming more dominated by CAFOs around the globe. It is interesting to note that CAFOs account for 74% of the world poultry production (68% of egg, 50% of pork, and 43% of beef).
Studies found that grass-fed cattle were estimated to account for less than 40% of greenhouse emissions as compared to that of CAFO cattle. CAFOs are highly centralized, which allows them to transfer animals to slaughter houses and then transfer them to distant retail markets leading to high carbon emissions.
By cutting down on foods that require fossil fuels, it’s possible to go on a low-carbon diet reducing one’s carbon footprint when choosing locally grown and raised food sources. In 2006, China introduced dietary guidelines to reduce the consumption of meat by 50% which reduces greenhouse gases by 1 billion tons by 2030. A 2010 report from the United Environment Program stated that a global shift towards a vegan diet was needed to save the world from hunger, fuel shortages and climate change.
An example of processing, packaging and waste, is a highly processed breakfast bar or a bottle of water, that comes in individual packaging and has a high demand for energy consumption resulting in package waste. One-third of the total energy input for food consumption is shipped from around the world. Then it is processed, packaged, and transported to retail outlets. In the end you throw away the packaging filling landfills to decompose, releasing carbons and other chemicals/gases used in the making of packaging materials. Additional energy may be required to keep things chilled, pressurized or even recycled, contributing energy and emissions.
Resources & additional reading:
- ‘Low Carbon Diet’ Aims to Take Bite Out of Global Warming
- Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK
- Global atmospheric methane: budget, changes and dangers
- China’s plan to cut meat consumption by 50% cheered by climate campaigners
- Renewed growth of atmospheric methane
- Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian diets
- What is your dinner doing to the climate?
- Plastic bottles pile up as mountains of waste
- Wikipedia low-carb diet
- Greenhouse gas emissions by the United States
So the low-carbon diet is not a diet at all, but a way of trying to save the planet and the lives on it.