The Food and Climate Connection

Industrial agriculture is one of the biggest contributors of carbon emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that agriculture and associated land use changes are responsible for 24% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – greater than emissions from industry and greater than the combined emissions of transportations and buildings.

The Healthy Food in Health Care program educates healthcare professionals on the health impacts of climate change on our food systems and leverages the purchasing power of hospitals to support a more sustainable food system.  Key strategies include:

Less Meat, Less Emissions 

Reducing the amount of meat and cheese that is served is one of the most powerful measures foodservice departments can take to reduce climate impact. Livestock production contributes 18% of the world’s GHG emissions. Beef and cheese have the highest climate impact of all foods because cows consume more feed, and their digestive system produces more methane than other livestock. Eliminating meat for one day per week, for example, could reduce emissions by an estimated 1.0 gigatons (Gt) to 1.3 Gt. per year, the equivalent to taking 273 million cars off the road.

Wasted Food is Wasted Greenhouse Gas Savings

Preventing food waste and diverting unused food from landfills is another powerful way to reduce climate impact.  Globally, about 30% of food is wasted. When food is discarded, the waste embodies all the associated emissions from its production, and when decomposing in landfills, generates significant quantities of methane. Halving global wasted food by 2050 could reduce emissions by an estimated 4.5 Gt.

Sustainable Food Purchasing Strategies for Climate Leadership

Health care facilities can reduce their climate impact by purchasing regionally and sustainably grown and produced foods

Fewer transport miles leads to fewer emissions. According to the Worldwatch Institute, in the United States, food travels an average of 1,500 miles from where it was grown to the plate and overall, transport accounts for about 11% of the food system's emissions. Other factors contribute to the climate impact of long-distance food including distribution, storage, and processing.  

A study of food miles in Canada estimated that replacing imported food with equivalent items locally grown in the Waterloo, Ontario region would save transport-related emissions equivalent to nearly 50,000 metric tons of CO2, or the equivalent of taking 16,191 cars off the road.  

Preferential purchasing of organic and sustainably produced products results in additional GHG savings by reducing or eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizers.. The manufacture and use of nitrogen fertilizers is the second highest source of GHG from food production. Nitrous oxide (N2O), the resulting emission, is a GHG with 300 times the warming potential of CO2. Agriculture is responsible for 60% of global N2O emissions.  

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