How Does Cooking Food Affect the Environment?

How Does Cooking Food Affect the Environment?

The practice of cooking food dates back thousands of years. While our ancestors may have used it to preserve their health and make food more digestible, cooking is now a form of entertainment and an outlet for creativity. A love language in and of itself, it’s unlikely the art of cooking will ever fizzle out. This is especially true as most foods require heat for consumption.

All of that aside, how does our heightened interest in cooking affect the environment? Are some methods better than others? It’s time to take a closer look at the food we eat and the ways we prepare it.  

How Does Cooking Food Affect The Environment? Header Image

What Do You Choose to Eat? 

Before considering how cooking your food affects the environment, you must first understand how your diet impacts the planet.

You’ve likely heard that vegans and vegetarians have a smaller environmental impact, but is that really true? Moreover, is eating animal products as harmful as everyone makes it out to be? It’s critical to consider several factors. 

1. Land Use

The expansion of agriculture — industrial and otherwise — has been one of the largest threats to the environment and biodiversity for years.

Today, humans dedicate 77% of all agricultural land to meat and dairy production. Yet, it only produces 18% of the world’s calorie intake. 

Cattle Pasture Livestock Farming - How Does Cooking Food Affect the Environment?

If the world population continues to grow at the current rate, meat-eaters could pose an even bigger problem for the planet. They would force the industry to deforest more land and irreparably destroy fragile ecosystems. 

2. Water Stress

Water scarcity affects every continent, and more than 2 billion people currently live in countries experiencing shortages. As the population grows, humanity will put more pressure on water resources, exacerbating the issue. Meat eaters also play a major role in creating water stress. 

beef steak - How Does Cooking Food Affect the Environment?
A 16-ounce steak takes ~2400 gallons of water to produce!

It takes 2,400 gallons to produce a 16-ounce rib-eye steak — the equivalent of six months of showers. Still, some vegan foods, like almond milk, require a lot of water as well, so do your research.

3. Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In addition to land and water use, food production also emits greenhouse gases, regardless of whether it’s a plant or animal product. These emissions contribute to global warming, which negatively impacts every living thing on the planet.

Livestock accounts for the majority of emissions, representing 14.5% of the world’s total greenhouse gases

A plate of assorted vegetables
Vegetables are comparatively much better for the environment than meats!

Meanwhile, per calorie, plant-based foods like tofu, beans, and nuts produce a comparatively minuscule amount of emissions, thereby having a much smaller impact on the environment. 

How Do You Source It?

How you source your food also has a direct impact on the environment.

Do you shop locally or visit a supermarket? How far does your food travel before reaching your plate? Is it ethically and sustainably sourced?

These are all questions you must ask yourself before finally cooking your meal — and they all deserve an informed answer. 

1. Food Miles

Transporting food long distances generates large quantities of carbon emissions, further exacerbating global warming and its surrounding issues.

Container (Cargo) Ship

Air and land transportation are the most destructive, as they use a lot of energy to move the least amount of food. While sea travel may be the greener option, it still has a relatively high carbon expenditure. 

Thus, by eating local food, you can greatly reduce your impact on the environment. Frequent the farmers market or plant your own garden at home to reap the benefits.

2. Organic vs. Non-Organic

The word organic usually comes with an environmentally friendly connotation. However, some organic foods can have an even worse impact on the planet than non-organics.

For example, one study found that Swedish organic peas had a 50% larger effect on the environment than those that were conventionally farmed. 

Meanwhile, the difference between organic and non-organic winter wheat was nearly 70%. This difference is mainly because organic crops require larger areas of land, resulting in higher emissions and more deforestation.

3. Farmed vs. Wild-Caught 

You might also think farmed seafood would have less of an environmental impact than wild-caught fish, especially since overfishing is wreaking havoc in the oceans. However, this isn’t the case. Aquaculture relies on synthetic chemicals, drugs, and antibiotics to control bacterial outbreaks and parasites. 

These pollutants leach into waterways, contaminating marine ecosystems and killing both wild fish and the animals that eat them. Thus, while eating seafood may be better than meat, it still negatively affects the environment. 

How Do You Cook It?

After you consider how the food you eat and where it comes from affects the planet, it’s time to take a look at your cooking methods.

Eco-friendly methods of cooking are vital to combating climate change, especially in developing countries where preparing food over open fires or stoves can account for as much as 80% of black carbon emissions. 

In countries like the U.S., this percentage may be lower, but your cooking methods will still affect your surroundings. 

1. Grilling 

Grilling your food can be a relatively good choice for the environment, depending on your fuel source.

For instance, wood pellets are renewable and don’t rely on gas or other liquid fuels to start and operate. They’re also cleaner than charcoal and burn more efficiently, allowing you to grill or smoke your food longer without using as many resources for fuel.

2. Stovetop 

Heating foods on a gas or electric stovetop is a popular method of cooking in the U.S. and elsewhere. However, this practice may harm both you and the planet. If you heat your food for too long or accidentally burn it, particulate matter can pollute the air inside your home, posing health risks to everyone inside. 

Grease and smoke may also travel through exhaust hoods, eventually draining onto your roof and flowing down into storm sewers, thereby polluting waterways. 

3. Frying

Deep-fryers and even stovetop fryers also tend to have adverse effects on the environment.

While evaporating oils play a part, improper disposal is also a cause for concern. In many places, grease dumping is illegal because, if you put it down the drain, it will eventually solidify and infiltrate local sewers. Disposing of it outside can also coat the ground, creating a toxic environment for plants and wildlife. 

Ordering Takeout

If cooking at home poses a threat to the planet, ordering takeout must be the more environmentally friendly option, right? Well, not exactly.

It’s true that a restaurant’s appliances will often be more energy-efficient and can cook greater quantities of food within a shorter period. However, the amount of plastic and paper waste and the gas necessary to transport your food offsets these benefits.

Styrofoam takeout containers
Image courtesy of winnond at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you must get takeout, find places that are close to home (walk or bike if possible!) and that use little packaging.

Minimizing the Effects

While converting to veganism and eating raw foods may greatly minimize your individual carbon footprint and your effect on the environment, adopting such a lifestyle would be difficult for most people.

You don’t want to eat cold soup and raw mushrooms for the rest of your life, do you? 

Of course not. Nobody would.

Still, there are ways you can make a difference without completely altering your life.

For example, you may begin your journey by only eating meat once a week or slowly phasing dairy out of your diet. Additionally, you might use a microwave or slow cooker more often to avoid emitting smoke and other pollutants.

Consider where you buy your food as well, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a more environmentally friendly cook. 

One step at a time, chef. If you bite off more than you can chew, you may become discouraged and give up your efforts. Take your time, and before you know it, you’ll be helping the planet, saving money and improving your health.


About the Author: Dylan Bartlett

Dylan Bartlett, aka, “The Regular Guide,” writes about a range of topics on his blog. Check out his site, Just a Regular Guide, for more, or follow Dylan on Twitter @theregularguide for frequent updates.

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