If your New Year’s resolution is to eat better for the planet, a new Tulane University study finds it may be easier than you think. Americans who eat beef could slash their diet’s carbon footprint as much as 48 percent by swapping just one serving per day for a more planet-friendly alternative.
Using real-world data from a large survey of what more than 16,000 Americans eat in an average day, the researchers then calculated how much of a difference people could make if they swapped one high-impact food item for similar, more sustainable options.
They examined how the change would impact two metrics — their daily diets’ greenhouse gas emissions and water scarcity footprint, a measure of irrigated water used to produce the foods they eat that considers regional variations in water scarcity.
Swapping out beef had biggest impact
The highest impact item in Americans’ diet is beef; roughly 20 percent of survey respondents ate at least one serving of it in a day. If they collectively swapped one serving of beef — for example, choosing ground turkey instead of ground beef — their diets’ greenhouse gas emissions fell by an average of 48 percent and water-use impact declined by 30 percent.
“People can make a significant difference in their carbon footprint with very simple changes — and the easiest one would be to substitute poultry for beef,” said the lead author.
The study also examined how the change would affect the overall environmental impact of all food consumption in the U.S. in a day — including the 80 percent of diets without any changes.
If only the 20 percent of Americans who ate beef in a day switched to something else for one meal, that would reduce the overall carbon footprint of all U.S. diets by 9.6 percent and reduce water-use impacts by 5.9 percent.
Agricultural production accounts for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and about 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals.
Other impactful diet swaps
Although swapping beef had the greatest impact, they also measured the impact of changing other items.
Replacing a serving of shrimp with cod reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 34 percent; replacing dairy milk with soymilk resulted in an 8 percent reduction.
The greatest reduction in the water scarcity footprint came from replacing asparagus with peas, resulting in a 48 percent decrease. Substituting peanuts in place of almonds decreased the water scarcity footprint by 30 percent.
Although individual substitutions were the focus of the study, the researchers said that addressing climate change must involve more than singular actions.
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