A plant-based diet reduces our ecological footprint


Recently, a European study analysed the influence of EU diets on greenhouse gas emissions. The verdict: the consumption of meat and dairy products has the greatest effect on the GHG intensity of our diets! To counter climate change, we would be better off switching to a plant-based diet.

How can we reduce our ecological footprint? We need to start by calculating it, in order to understand the impact of our own lifestyle on our planet. The WWF* has a footprint calculator, which enables you to measure in global hectares or acres how much of the planet is ‘used’ to produce the resources we consume. Of all the things you can do on a daily basis, paying attention to what you eat is a good place to start to help save the environment. And this study draws our attention to a number of critical points.

A few figures about the ecological footprint of our diet

  • Te food supply of the average EU citizen has a GHG footprint of 1,070 kg CO2 equivalent/year, if you factor in the emissions from food production, land use change, and international transports.
  • This is the equivalent of the emissions of a vehicle with one passenger, which covers approx. 6,000 km.
  • Meat and dairy products account for over 75% of the impact of EU diets.

With regard to the last point, meat and dairy production do not just account for direct emissions, i.e., livestock-related emissions, but also for indirect drivers like deforestation, caused by agricultural expansion for food production. This often occurs outside the EU.

Calculating the ecological footprint of a diet is much more complicated than it seems

Contrary to popular thinking, the study suggests that our food supply only accounts for a small percentage of the EU’s ecological footprint. It represents less than 5% of global greenhouse emissions from agriculture and land use. As Europeans also consume imports from other countries around the world, this means, however, that if you only take into account the emissions related to the production of food across EU countries for your calculation, you miss an important part of the puzzle.

The authors of the study also add that “while people tend to think that eating local products is the solution to climate change, in reality the type of products we eat are much more important than their origins, in terms of global impact.” Europeans, however, have a tradition of eating meat and dairy products. Reducing our ecological footprint therefore does not mean that we should stop eating these products, but rather that we should diversify our diet, reduce the amount of meat and dairy products we consume, and eat more plant-based food instead.

*World Wide Fund for Nature

Sandström V. et al., Global Food Security, 2018; 19: 48.