Days 3 and 4 - My Week of Environmentally Responsible Living

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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For those participating in No Impact Week, Tuesday was all about transportation and taking action on any one environmental issue, and Wednesday's focus was on eating sustainably and making the best food choices.

I wish I could say that I bicycled to work, given that I do live on Manhattan's Upper West Side and have easy access to the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, a 32-mile traffic-free path that circumnavigates Manhattan. Finding the safest or most direct route would also have been easy, thanks to many of the initiatives the City of New York has been taking to support bicyclists, including the handy Interactive Bike Map feature on the Department of Transportation's website. I am also proud to say that my employer NRDC provides bike racks inside the office as well as shower facilities for those who bike to work. All these factors notwithstanding, I unfortunately did not bike to work because I currently don't own a bike. My neighborhood is notorious for bike vandalism and theft, and until I buy myself one of those nifty (but pricey) foldable bikes that enable me to ride to work, I will continue to do what I do now - take the subway to work. Public transportation is next best thing, and - as those of you who tuned in to watch my colleague Rich Kassel on Tuesday night's No Impact Week webcast know - is central to lowering the footprint of any community. 

In terms of taking action, I decided to look beyond the issues I am usually active on such as climate change and clean energy, and lend my voice to various other issues through NRDC's Take Action web page: telling the EPA not to let massive limestone mining ruin the everglades, asking Congress to close the 'Halliburton Loophole' to protect drinking water from contamination, and urging President Obama to stop logging and other destruction in Alaska's pristine Tongass National Forest.

And this brings me to Wednesday and the day's focus area: Food Glorious Food! One of these days I am going to get a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) test done to see the increased brain activity in my head when the topic of food comes up. While I don't fancy myself a gastronome or epicure (because I am not snooty about food...well, not yet anyway!), I am pretty sure that significant sections of my neural networks are highly attuned to information about food. It is a wonder that I don't have framed pictures of food hanging on my walls! Most people wonder how someone who enjoys food so much can be vegetarian, and I've tried to address this issue in previous posts, but this week I find myself posing a similar question to myself: can someone who enjoys food so much be vegan? Five days into No Impact Week (or my Tread Lightly Week), I think my own personal answer is that I certainly can eat vegan food more frequently, and have a reduced dairy intake, yet revel in the wonders of taste. Probably not a 100% switch, but certainly more than before. Why am I intent on reducing my dairy intake? Because the livestock industry contributes 18% of worldwide GHGs; because raising cows the way we do now is egregiously energy and water intensive, and because science has demonstrated in unequivocal terms (the Eshel-Martin paper is now the single most cited source on this matter by experts) that reducing the percentage of food in one's diet that is tied to the livestock industry is the most effective way to reduce one's carbon footprint.

This week I was also trying to eat more local and organic food. While the jury is still out on the extent to which organic agriculture reduces the climate impact of food, and the variable reductions for different crops in different agro-climatic zones, the fact that it does so is fast moving beyond debate. Given that Nitrous Oxide - a potent greenhouse gas with 310 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and also currently the top ozone depleting substance - is released predominantly from agricultural activities, reduction or elimination of nitrogen fertilizer through organic farming is likely to have a beneficial climate impact. And this is all besides the reassurance of knowing one's food hasn't been doused with nasty chemicals.

Eating local also has an impact on one's carbon footprint, since it reduces transportation-related emissions arising from long journeys in refrigerated vehicles. Additionally, due to the popularity of specific crops from certain areas, production of food in those regions requires massive scale-up, often consuming more energy and water to produce. Some numbers to ponder from David de Rothschild: making 10 gallons of Florida orange juice requires one gallon of diesel and 220 gallons of water to irrigate process and then transport to northern states. A California lettuce eaten in New York devours 40 times its caloric value in fossil fuel to produce and ship. A conventional meal creates 4 to 17 times as many GHG emissions as a locally sourced one. Of course, such estimates vary significantly from crop to crop, and region to region. And the impact of eating local is by itself not necessarily large enough to make a dent in one's footprint. A recent study demonstrated that transportation accounts for 11% of a household's food-related carbon footprint, while the actual delivery from producer to final retailer amounts to even less - just 4%. The real climate killer is the production phase, accounting for 83% of an average household's food-related footprint. So, by and large, what you eat is more important than where it came from. That said, I am still a fan of eating local where possible, so as to support the local community. Find out about good farmers markets in your area, and buy the freshest produce you can by finding out what seasonal foods are available close to you.

For all those concerned about the environmental impact of their diet and looking for a way to lessen their carbon footprint, the bottom-line remains that a dietary shift is the single most effective way to do so. And if a lover of good food and fine dining like me can do it, so can you!.

For more information, visit NRDC's green eating guide.


My Day 2 and 3 pats-on-the-back: cooking vegan curry with organic, local produce from the farmer's market, and going vegan for my pre-existing lunch-meetings with colleagues.

Local farm produce

Local farm produce

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.