A New Year’s resolution: food choices for more than one reason in 2019.

January 15, 2019

A New Year is a great time to reflect, journal resolutions and hopefully plan for a new lifestyle. This usually checks in after an indulgent season of rest, making merry and re-connecting with friends and family. However  as you reflect on a new season, do you think about your personal contribution to climate change? In actual sense, very few people think about food-related emissions as they journal their dietary food choices at the beginning of every year.

Dietary choices and their contribution to greenhouse gases continue to have a high impact on the environment. While most conversations on climate change have centered on industrialization, agriculture and how countries can reduce their carbon footprints, the role of food choices in the current climate crisis have often been downplayed.

Closer home in Kenya, statistics from FAO indicate that meat consumption is set to increase by 70 per cent by 2050 due to population increase. The reality of this statistic is that most of us are ignorant about meat  consumption and its carbon foot print. It is also argued that if our planet gets 2 degrees warmer we will all be in trouble-  with dire consequences of more seasons of drought, floods and extreme heat. Simply put, now more than ever we need to start being responsible over our individual actions on global warming.

As we lens in on the food we eat locally, think about this – a spicy plate of fried beef served with any accompaniment you might want, from ugali (a type of maize porridge eaten in East and Central Africa) to coconut rice. What comes to your mind first? We live in a society concerned about what the food we eat does to our waistline and our wallets. We are bombarded with diet fad after diet fad that promises slim waists and flawless skin. Rarely are environmental and sustainability concerns factored into our food choices.

The truth is that the food we eat plays a significant role in the current status of global warming. Agriculture contributes the most (40 per cent of overall total emissions in 2015) to Kenya’s greenhouse gas  emissions. The livestock sector particularly contributes to over half of the agricultural emissions, mainly from methane emissions from cattle. To put this in perspective, livestock production alone is equivalent to emissions from all transportation (trucks, planes, ships, tuk tuks, cars, buses, etc)  combined.

Let’s examine that piece of nyama choma (barbecued meat in Kiswahili) on your plate. Just how did it get on your plate and what are the associated emissions from the farm where the bull came from to your plate? This is the typical process: Selection of a bull, slaughter house, market and lastly, the consumer. In the entire process, there are emissions of greenhouse gases from the the cattle, to diesel-powered machinery and transportation to the the slaughter house and eventually the steak that ends up on your plate at home- not to mention the massive amount of energy needed to preserve the meat by freezing it.

Served grilled meat. Picture: Pixabay

In essence, different foods have different associated carbon emissions. It is largely believed that beef and lamb pack the biggest percentage of carbon as far as the associated emissions are concerned with 330g of CO2  per serving, more than six times as much as chicken which is at 52g of CO2  per serving. Fish at 40g of CO2  per serving has the least emission of any meat, but vegetables have an average of 2g of CO2 emissions. Your plate of spicy fried beef doesn’t only come with increased carbon emission considerations, the methane from cattle is 25 times more potent to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. This means it is 25 times more destructive and harder to get rid of.

Now that we can see that meat consumption has high emissions and pose the greatest risk to the environment, what solutions are there for those who would want to make a difference in the fight against climate change? Do we then boycott eating all things beef?

As with everything else in life, the solution is all in moderation. We can all make an effort to reduce portions as well as the frequency of eating meat. Without changes in our food consumption, environmental impacts of the food system is likely to keep rising and much of this is attributable to diets rich in meat products. Reducing meat intake even by just going down to one meal a week is not just good for the environment, but good for your health as well. Further, there exists other options of diverse foods such legumes, vegetables and fruits which are healthy for your diet and also friendly to the planet. Studies have even shown that adjusting our diets can actually help reduce 15 per cent of global emissions by 2050. This is equivalent to taking about 1 billion cars off the road by the same time period.

Cooked legumes.
Picture: Pixabay


Maybe we can’t all be part of the policy-making teams at the UN, afford electric cars, or even install solar panels on our roof tops. But we can make better choices about what we eat. It may seem like a small contribution to this fight for a cleaner planet, but it actually makes a huge impact.

Please visit www.hivoscarboncredits.org/co2-calculator if you would want to know more about how your choices are impacting the planet, and what you can do about it.  For more information on how else you can make a difference in your day to day life, contact Natasha Otolo at nkalanda@hivos.org.