What’s on our plate makes a massive difference, but it’s not just about food miles. Growing food (aka agriculture) is the second largest contributor to Australia’s net greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, food makes up almost a third of our global carbon footprint. But before you start hatin’ on farmers, a recent survey shows 8 in 10 Aussie farmers want more climate action.
So how can we eat better and support the kind of farming that will make the biggest difference? And y’know…just be less of a dick?
1. Eat mo plant protein instead of animal protein
As the growth of food docos, plant-based eateries and the use of #VEGAN will attest, more Australians are realising that animals burping emits a shit ton of methane, which is even worse than carbon dioxide for the climate. The Australian government’s own stats shows agriculture emitted 58% of Australia’s methane, and most of that is from animal burps.
All these emissions exist even though Australian beef is much less reliant on the unsustainable feedlot system painted as the villain in American food docos. Plus, animal poop is an important part of capturing carbon in the soil. So going full blown vegan isn’t a climate silver bullet.
That said, Australians are among the biggest meat eaters in the world. Swapping out chops for chickpeas (which we export more than 95% of) is the biggest difference most Aussies can make on their plates. Even if you’re not ready to go #meatfree, you can make some simple changes.
Hit up the lazy person’s guide to eating more plant-based protein and offal (without inflicting tastebud cruelty). Plant proteins are also #cheapeats, which means you’ll be better placed to choose genuinely free range, pastured animals when you do eat meat.
The easiest way to get genuinely free range meat, eggs or dairy is to choose organic, but if you can find out from the farmer or butcher, that’s even better.
2. Support natural, closed-loop farming/organics
After you’ve finished off that hummus, the next best thing you can do is support natural farming – or if we were to really over simplify our advice – organic farming. Regardless of the contradicting studies on productivity or nutrition, organic farming does tend to be better for the climate. And when it comes to climate change, making some positive difference sure as hell seems better than cooking ourselves because we were too busy arguing about the details.
Here are are two key reasons to consider.
The fucked up situation with fertilizers
If you look at that graph above of agricultural emissions in Australia, the next biggest bit in red is all about soil emissions. These are mostly thanks to conventional farming’s heavy reliance on nitrogen fertilizer, responsible for 76% of Australia’s nitrous oxide emissions (which yes, is laughing gas). You may need some when you realise that a tonne of the stuff is equivalent to 298 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Before you demonise conventional farmers, the majority of Australian farmers are actually trying to mitigate nitrous emissions. Plus, using the right amount is easier said than done. But as you can see in that graph, unless we support farmers who use the least of the harmful stuff, those emissions are just going to keep on going up. And producing these synthetic nitrogen fertilizers isn’t exactly a laugh either – it consumes 1.2% of the world’s energy, heavily reliant on natural gas. Organic farming standards in Australia ensure these energy-hungry off-farm fertilizers can only be used as a supplement, when there’s a “demonstrated need.”
One of the organic farmers who we’ve visited – Common2Us
Putting carbon back in the soil
Australia pays carbon credits to farms who are putting carbon into the soil. At first this sounds perfectly sensible, since various studies have claimed regenerative farming can eat up anywhere between 3-40% of global emissions. Carbon-rich soils are also more productive, and Australian soils have been shown to have enormous capacity. All we’d have to do is grow more perennial pastures, grow more mixed species on the farm, and add heaps (like heeeaaps) of poo and the stuff from our green bins into the soil.
But when you dig deeper, it’s not so simple. First, that carbon needs to remain in the soil long term, otherwise it just floats back up into the air. And technically, the potential for carbon sequestering in Australian soils is limited and economically a bit of a loser (we love a good meta analysis). So be wary of overseas studies and applying them down under.
So why support organic farming? The FAO maintains that organic agriculture has “major potential” to reduce emissions. Some point out it depends on whether the specific farmer considers carbon in the soil a priority.
Fortunately, in Australia’s National Organic Standard, building carbon in the soil isn’t required, but most of the fertilizers organic farmers have to stick to put carbon back into the soil anyway.
3. Eat more of your food (aka chuck less of it)
As if we didn’t emit enough emissions growing food and getting it to our plates, chucking it has its own set of emissions. In Australia, household food waste alone created enough emissions to rival the iron and steel industries. Globally, North America and Oceania (hi Australia) have the biggest per person emissions from food waste, especially on the consumer end. If global food waste emissions were a country, they’d be the third biggest emitter.
Even if you’re struggling to afford organic food, everyone can afford to chuck less food out. Here are all our top ways to save your food from being a dick to the climate.
4. Where others see leafy greens, seaweed
According to Australia’s foremost climate scientist, farming seaweed in just 9% of the world’s oceans would negate ALL of our current emissions each year. That’s helped by every ton of dried kelp containing up to a third of a ton of carbon.
Of course, farming seaweed means we need to use it – so here’s how to eat more of it! Plus a seaweed salad recipe, because why not. Especially when seaweed is pretty good for you, and doesn’t go off in a matter of days like land lettuce or spinach does.
Even if you can’t eat seaweed yourself, it’s a climate win when we feed it to cows, reducing methane emissions by up to 99%. It’s also a much more efficient biofuel, cleans up seafood farms, and is a good fertilizer too.
Image credits: Nikki To, Julia Gove