Dinner may feel a far cry from the climate crisis, but the global food system--how we raise crops and livestock, where we farm, and what we do with the waste--contributes to a whopping one-third of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. (And there are all those other ecological impacts, too, from a pre-oil spilldead zone in the Gulf of Mexico to depleted aquifers across the U.S. farm country and ag regions around the globe.)
Want to reduce your "ecological foodprint"? Choosing a climate-friendly diet is one way to reduce your global impact. The good news is reaching for the healthy climate choice also means helping your health... and waistline, too.
You may have even been following these principles, guided by good food luminaries like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle who summed it all up neatly back in 2006: "eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don't eat too much junk food."
See how your diet stacks up by checking out these seven principles of a climate-friendly diet. For more inspiration to make climate-friendly choices, check out my latest book Diet for a Hot Planet and the resources at the Center for Food Safety's Cool Foods Campaign.
Here's to cool eating!
Processed foods are chock-full of ingredients that add a big emissions toll to our food, and usually aren’t too healthy for us either. Take the Pop Tart. Among its tasty ingredients? Gelatin, made from by-products of the meat and leather industries; sodium pyrophosphate, commonly used in household detergents; and Tert-Butylhydroquinone (THBQ), a preservative, also found in household varnishes; three artificial colorants, including Red No. 40, banned in many EU countries because of human health concerns; and, palm oil. The second most-traded vegetable oil in the world, palm oil is found in most cookies, crackers, granola bars, and more. The global warming connection? Ninety-eight percent of palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia on former forests that have been cleared and burned, releasing tons of greenhouse gases. Steer clear of Pop Tarts and their processed food brethren and choose real food.
Here are some of the reasons why putting plants in the center of your plate makes eco-sense: • In 2006, global livestock production is responsible for as much as 18 percent of all emissions, especially because of resource-intensive factory farms and the destruction of rainforests for feedcrop production and pasture. • Half of all corn and 90 percent of soy is diverted to feed animals on factory farms; • Half of all fossil-fuel intensive synthetic fertilizer in the United States is used on feed crops; • Seventy percent of all agricultural land is now used for livestock; • A Cornell study found that meeting the annual dietary needs of a typical meat eater requires as much as 2.1 acres of farmland, compared with a just half an acre for a plant-centered eater; • Fossil fuel use can be from 2.5- to as much as 50-times higher to produce meat protein than vegetable-based proteins. If you eat meat and dairy, you can reduce your impact by choosing humanely and sustainably raised products, and looking for organic-certified or grassfed. (But since virtually 100 percent of meat and dairy found in most U.S. supermarkets comes from energy-intensive factory farms, this can be tough to find!)
Support farmers who are getting off the chemical and fossil-fuel treadmill and landing on their feet. Go for foods with the USDA organic seal. Or, talk directly to your food producer, who may be using sustainable methods but might not be certified or who may be in the three-year transition period to certified organic. Find out more about the United States organic certification program. For an international perspective, visit the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements at ifoam.org or the UK’s Soil Association. The Organic Center is also a great starting place for research about the organic sector. Join the Organic Consumers Association to learn about how you can support organic farmers and speak up for policies that will promote organic food.
Support your regional food economy: visit your locally stocked supermarkets, check out your nearest farmers market, or become a member of a farm through community-supported agriculture (CSA). Supporting our regions’ small-scale farmers and local businesses is a key way to ensure we have any climate-friendly food at all. While transport-related emissions are usually a smaller slice of a food’s overall ecological toll than production-related emissions, local food holds other eco-benefits, including emissions reductions associated with sustainable production and with building healthy soil and preserving green spaces.
The average American family wastes $600 worth of food every year, says the University of Arizona. The country? Nearly half of food we could eat never makes it to our plate, plowed under in the fields, lost in processing, or wasted at other stops along the food chain. A typical restaurant, for instance, wastes between 40 and 50 percent of its food. This food waste adds up big-time to landfills, another way the food has a climate impact, too. Do your part: Eat those peas! Or join a food gleaning effort in your community, like Forage Oakland in California. And check out campaigns like COOL (Compostable Organics out of Landfills), which is working with state and local governments to keep food, and other stuff that could be composted, out of our methane-emitting landfills. And get inspired by the Love Food-Hate Waste campaign out of the UK.
Every year, Americans toss out 30 to 40 billion plastic water bottles. That’s roughly 130 bottles a year for every single man, woman, and babe in the U.S. We don’t do much better with plastic bags and food packaging. In San Francisco, for example, 180 million petroleum-based plastic bags find their way into shoppers’ hands every year. McDonald’s alone is responsible for roughly half-a-billion Big Mac wrappers and boxes ending up in U.S. garbage dumps annually. Our food and drink’s paper and plastic, cardboard and bottles, cans and Styrofoam play a starring role in the food system’s global warming impact, from the emissions related to producing the packaging to those from the landfills clogged with their waste. (Those San Francisco bags? They used up 774,000 gallons of oil to produce ‘em). Bring your own bags, utensils, and to-go ware and get behind policies to curb excess packaging and encourage reuse and recycling, like the City of Santa Monica’s ban on all non-recycled to-go containers.
The best way to bring climate-friendly fare into your life is to reclaim your own power to cook, grow, and create your own food. Here are some resources to get you started in the kitchen: • Check out Heidi Swanson’s luminous 101Cookbooks.com to get inspired. Her blog always delights with fresh ideas for simple and delicious cooking. • The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, by Peter Berley. I am obsessed with the vegan skillet cornbread. Just writing this now, I start craving the jalapeno and maple-syrup infused delight. • Any cookbook by Mollie Katzen (of Moosewood Cookbook fame). Check out the enticing ones for cooking meals with kids. • How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, by Mark Bittman is brilliant and easy-to-follow. Plus with a gazillion variations throughout, you can always find a recipe for the ingredients you have on hand. • Lucid Food, by Louisa Shafia. The beautiful photographs in this cookbook will seduce you, if the recipes don’t first. • For more plant-centered recipe ideas, shopping lists, and other culinary tips, check out Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen and Bryant Terry’s recipes.
Follow Anna Lappé on Twitter: www.twitter.com/annalappe