02/10/2015 01:49 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2015

Climate-Smart Eating: Saving the Planet, One Person at a Time

I think the Chick-fil-A cow is onto something. You know, the cow that holds up the sign, "Eat mor chikin." I think that cow is thinking about ways to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and realizes that an easy way to cut emissions from beef consumption by a minimum of 94 percent (and maybe as high as 99 percent) is to switch to eating chicken.

The Chick-fil-A cow could become the first spokes-animal for what could become an extremely important movement that might be dubbed "climate-smart eating," a sort of mash-up of climate-smart agriculture (launched in 2014 at the UN Climate Summit in New York) and the reduced carbon footprint movement.

Climate-smart eating recognizes that the GHG emissions of what we choose to eat can vary widely, and since GHG emissions associated with the food we eat is estimated at between 44 and 57 percent of total planetary emissions (according to the non-governmental organization, GRAIN, and published by The Wall Street Journal and by the UN), people's choices concerning the food they eat has the potential to make a huge difference in how much GHGs are emitted. Good choices will serve to slow the rate of climate change, and will ultimately reduce the extent of the damage associated with that change.

While climate-smart agriculture (CSA) tries to get farmers to change how they grow things, climate-smart eating (CSE) seeks to change WHAT they grow, by changing the structure of demand for their products. CSE together with CSA could be the one-two punch on climate mitigation--the process of reducing GHG emissions. The idea of climate-smart eating is starting to catch on, evidenced by its inclusion in the latest report from a United Nations panel, though under a less catchy name, "demand-side options" for mitigation.

Not all of us are farmers, but all of us are eaters. CSA mobilizes farmers; CSE mobilizes the world -- and that is critical if goals for GHG reductions are to be met. Climate-smart eating, as a movement, encourages each person to voluntarily help save the planet by reducing the GHG content of the food he or she chooses to eat. Not only could we choose to "eat mor chikin," but we could reduce some of our meat consumption, since grains, fruits, and vegetables almost always take less GHG emissions to produce. We could consider the emissions from transporting the food to our grocery stores, and buy more locally when possible. And we could do our part to reduce waste by not buying more than needed and saving and eating leftovers. Food discarded is like multiplying the GHG emissions taken to produce food that is actually consumed. And, as mentioned, we could care more about HOW our food was produced -- did it use climate-smart agricultural techniques?

Yet it would be good not to go too far in such a movement without more research on CSE and the potential impacts. For example, the simple suggestion to eat less beef would likely adversely affect anyone involved in raising and processing cattle. Not only would it impact the large-scale producers, but potentially even poor pastoralists in Africa. I used to live in northern Kenya, surrounded by pastoralists for hundreds of kilometers on all sides. I would not want to harm any of my friends there who are simply living out a traditional lifestyle with likely little impact on the environment (due to the generally small numbers of cattle).

We also need to think about the possible unintended consequences on land. If there were less cattle eating the grass and shrubs in the semi-arid areas of Africa, would that result in increased termite populations which feast on the very plants that the cattle populations keep in check? Termites, ironically, are one of the largest emitters of methane, and termites are everywhere in Africa -- they are to the soils what earthworms are in North America.

Furthermore, what are the nutritional implications of less beef or animal protein in diets? For people who have good incomes, perhaps the impact would or at least could be positive. But for people on marginal incomes, one wonders whether this could lead to nutritional deficits.

Despite reasons to not act too rashly before additional research helps develop good strategies for implementing climate-smart eating, it is clear that this is an area that has huge potential to be a game changer in slowing the accumulation of GHGs in the upper atmosphere. Because it could literally save millions of lives and billions of dollars, governmental intervention is clearly a legitimate option. For example, establishing a carbon tax on the GHG content of foods is an economically rational suggestion.

But we don't need governments to act for climate-smart eating to work. People power could prove stronger than government power. Each of us can pledge to change how we eat, reflecting our concern for the planet in our choices. Hard as it is for me to refuse to satisfy my taste for beef, I can "eat mor chikin." And if all of us make some kind of sacrifice, then perhaps a movement will be born that will radically alter not only the trajectory of agriculture, but the trajectory of the planet's climate, averting some of the potential weather disasters that surely lie ahead in the decades to come.

Timothy S. Thomas is a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute specializing in climate change and agriculture issues. He has co-authored three recently published books on the adaptation of agriculture to climate change in African countries.