Rakshith’s Scholarship Essay

Essay - 'Food Habits and Climate Change'

Most people do not associate climate change with the food they eat. But food systems, for reasons that we are about to see, have a huge impact on climate change. Making changes in our food habits is one of the most effective ways to reduce our environmental impact on the planet.

If there is only one thing that one can do for the environment, it must be this. The “thing” that we are talking about is consuming more plants and fewer foods with animal sourced ingredients. The ideal goal we can try and achieve is being vegan. There are a plethora of good reasons for one to go vegan: for your health, for the animals, and so on. But we will only look at how it does good for the environment.

Let us look at some numbers first. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions [1]. It is important to bear in mind that this is a conservative number; various other studies estimate this to be a much higher quantity [2][3]. Livestock also takes up almost 80 percent of global agricultural land [4]. These numbers might seem okay at first. After all, the end products of animal agriculture: meat, dairy, and eggs, feed a lot of people on this planet. But we need to understand that these products take up significantly more resources than producing plants. Be it land usage, water usage, or the carbon footprint of different food products. Plant foods always come out on top.

Source: Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Note: Greenhouse gases are weighted by their global warming potential value (GWP100). GWP100 measures the relative warming impact of one molecule of a greenhouse gas, relative to carbon dioxide, over 100 years. OurWorldInData.org/environmental-impacts-of-food • CC BY

Take beef, for instance. A kilogram of beef takes up 1451-2714 liters of water. Comparatively, pulses only take up about 436 liters. It might seem like we are neglecting the nutritional differences. But even if we compare them on a nutrient basis, pulses would be the better choice: for 100g of protein, beef can take anywhere from 728 to 1375 liters while pulses only take a meagre 204 liters [5]. Despite taking up so much more resources, livestock is responsible for less than 20% of the world’s supply of calories [4]. This is not the end of the story, though. Multiple studies [6], including this recent comprehensive one from FAO [7] show that virtually all the deforestation in the past two decades is due to agriculture: especially animal agriculture.


Livestock is responsible for 38.46 percent of deforestation directly, because of grazing. If we take a closer look, we see that livestock is also responsible for a large percentage of the deforestation caused to grow crops (cropland expansion). This is because a significant proportion of the crops we grow using this agricultural land does not end up in human stomachs. Only about 55 percent of the world’s crop calories are directly eaten by people, according to a study published in IOP Science [8]. In fact, with the amount of feed farmed pigs consume every year, we could potentially feed 2 billion people [9]. Think about what this means. If most (if not all) of us ate plants, there would be a significant decrease in deforestation, land use, and water usage. All the land used for livestock could be left free to re-wild and become forests, which would act as carbon sinks, reducing warming further.

Is the difference in impacts between the two kinds of diets significant?

The short answer is: Yes. The author of the most comprehensive study ever done on this topic said, “Going vegan is the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth” [10]. For comparison, the difference is even larger than giving up flying or buying an electric car. Sectors that contribute to high methane emissions like animal agriculture, rice cultivation, wet and food waste are the ones where industrial and policy changes can’t do much good. This is where our lifestyle changes can help. Even though the rich cause a lot more damage and policy changes can create more impact, we also need individuals to step up and be willing to make lifestyle changes for the planet. It need not be either/or, because the government can make changes along with individuals contributing to the cause. Each one of us is partly responsible for climate change, and people learn to change when they see others change.

Learning about the effects of climate change has made me more observant of the unnatural climate-related events that have been happening where I live. Most recently, it was the heatwave that occurred during the summer of 2022. I was in North India at the time, and it was very evident. Daytime was unnaturally hot, even during the early months of summer. Cycling every day to college was much harder because of the scorching heat. And then monsoon arrived, with above-normal rainfall which caused heavy floods in northeast India. I remember many of my friends sharing various fundraisers on social media because people were in desperate need of help. Millions of people were affected. Unfortunately, during such events, it is the poor people who bear the brunt of it.


Looking at how food habits have changed over the years, we can see two major trends of importance relevant to climate change: The increase in meat consumption, and the rise of fast food. Humans have been consuming more and more meat over the years, owing to intensive factory farming. We breed into existence at least 70 billion land animals every year unnaturally, and as we saw previously, this is not sustainable. We also consume so much fish that we could have fishless oceans by 2050 [11]. Past trends have also shown us that meat consumption always rises in developing countries as the per capital income of the population increases. If left unchecked, animal agriculture might become more problematic than

To help fight climate change, there are many more food-related lifestyle changes we can make.

Here are some:

1. Eating mostly unprocessed, whole foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, pulses, lentils, nuts, etc.

2. Consuming locally grown foods, like locally grown fruits instead of imported ones.

3. Avoiding food wastage.

4. Trying to compost the kitchen wet waste you produce in your house.

For any environmentally conscious person, food is just the beginning. Going completely vegan and ditching all animal products will reduce your environmental impact even more, and there are many more reasons for one to be vegan. The diet that is the most environmentally friendly just so happens to be one of the healthiest and the most ethical.


1. https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/#:~:text=By%20the%20numbers%3A%20GHG%20emissions,of%20all%20anthropogenic%20GHG%20emissions

2. https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/livestock-emissions-account-for 51-percent-of-greenhouse-gases

3. https://climatehealers.org/the-science/animal-agriculture-position-paper/

4. https://ourworldindata.org/agricultural-land-by-global-diets

5. https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food

6. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/044009

7. https://www.fao.org/forest-resources-assessment/remote-sensing/fra-2020-remote-sensing-survey/en/

8. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-326/8/3/034015/meta#erl472821s3

9. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1308149110

10. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth