Eat your way to a smaller carbon footprint


local foodSummer is filled with fun picnics, backyard parties, and tasty food. Sweet, right? Have you ever considered how all that food is impacting your carbon footprint? Bringing our food from seed to table accounts for as much as a quarter of all human carbon emissions on our planet. Summer is a great time to take advantage of local produce and reduce the impact of your food. Eating seasonally and locally can reduce the carbon footprint of your food by up to 10%.  Read on to find out the details and more summer sizzling ways to reduce your food’s carbon emissions!

Food Miles: Is eating locally always better?

Food carbon footprintWhen we talk about the carbon footprint of food, the first thing we should  consider is the distance it travels, or “food miles”. You can reduce the carbon footprint of your food by up to 7% by eating locally. Food miles are only a small part of our food’s carbon emissions, so to devise the best strategy to cut its carbon footprint, we need to look at the whole story of our food. Sometimes, eating local food out of season may have a larger footprint than importing food grown within the same season for several reasons:

  • Storing food consumes electricity and may create more CO2 than transport.
  • Growing food in a non-native climate may require a hot house, which also uses power.
  • Growing food from warmer areas in colder climate requires a lot of fertilizer, which produces CO2e gasses.

In fact, up to 83% of CO2 emissions come from food production, which mainly consist of growing and storing food.

Click here to see an example of how distance impacts your food's carbon footprint

Case study:

fruitTo see how distance and seasonality contributes to our food’s footprint let’s compare  bananas, which are imported year-round, and apples. Bananas are one of the most climate-friendly fruits to export – they last long and don’t require extra packaging. The largest CO2e emissions source for them is refrigeration: keeping the fruit at 8°C increases the total CO2e emissions by at least 220 grams per kilogram of fruit.  1 kg of bananas transported to USA yields 480 g of CO2 emissions, or 80 g of CO2 per banana, independent of the season.

Now, consider an apple. Its carbon footprint on average is also 80 g of CO2 per apple. However, there are more factors to consider. An apple is better than a banana, when it is sold in the same season it was picked:

  • When grown locally and sold in season, an apple’s carbon footprint is about half of the banana’s (~232 g of CO2/kg).
  • When an apple is imported from a place where they are in season and sold right away, its carbon footprint is slightly less than that of the banana (~341 g of CO2/kg).

Alternatively, an apple can be picked locally and refrigerated until it’s sold in the winter or early spring. In this case the footprint of an apple is slightly more than that of a banana (~430 g of CO2/kg), because refrigeration accounts for a large part of the carbon footprint. If the apple is imported and stored, carbon footprints can reach (~560 g of CO2/kg).

In addition to refrigeration, chemicals used to treat apples in storage also contribute CO2e emissions.  Apples are stored with high levels of carbon dioxide to slow ripening and fungicides are applied to prevent rotting.

To avoid CO2e emissions and get fresh fruit consider local suppliers and buy in-season fruits. Farmer’s markets or fruit picking on a farm are some of the few options because, sadly, the average supermarket apple is actually 14 months old.

And we are not even taking the impact of fertilizers into account.

Between conventional and organic – pick sustainable!

carbon footprint of foodThere is a large debate concerning the carbon footprint of organic and conventional agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations claims that by switching to organic agriculture farmers can reduce up to 66% of CO2 emissions. Large agricultural companies claim otherwise. For example, BASF claims that organically grown apples have higher overall energy consumption (+15-25%), CO2 emissions (+5-15%), and land use (+30%).

If you can, choose sustainable food. While organic and sustainable products often sound synonymous, this is not always the case. Organic products consider mainly the aspect of human health, while sustainable practices take into account the economic, social, and ecological factors to ensure that we will continue to have the resources to protect the Earth.

So, how do you find sustainable food? While there is no sustainability label yet, there is an app for that! Plus, there is always the farmers market, where you can find out the story of your food directly from the growers. If no sustainable option is available, organic food remains the second best choice as often it is grown in a more sustainable fashion than conventionally grown produce.

Independent studies show organic agriculture is likely to have a smaller carbon footprint, but they use more land per kilogram of produce. Even organic dairy farming has a smaller carbon footprint than conventional. Check out our projects which help reduce the carbon footprint of dairy farms.

Avoid processed food

carbon footprint of processed foodWhether at home or in a manufacturing plant, the less processing your food sees the better! Reduce your carbon footprint by eating more raw vegetables. Ditch those chocolate brownies and switch to local fruits and veggies. It’s good for you and the environment, because it makes you healthier and eliminates the carbon footprint of your stove. Check out our This vs. That to find out the carbon footprint of chocolate.

In fact, raw dieting is the new trend. Avoiding cooking reduces your power use, which is one of the largest parts in the footprint of an average American. A gas oven only uses 6% of its energy to cook and an electric one is not much better at 12%. If you have to cook, the most efficient method is simmering on the stove-top. The next best is the microwave – it uses 50% less energy than the oven.

Go vegetarian: how effective is that?

carbon footprint of vegetarian foodLivestock production contributes 14.5% to 18% of all GHG emissions. Vast tracts of land are cleared to make way for growing food for cows. A meat lover’s diet has the highest carbon footprint at 3.3 tons of GHGs. A vegetarian’s carbon footprint is about 1.7 tons GHGs.

Looking to go vegetarian or vegan to reduce your carbon footprint? Know the facts. When carbon emissions are calculated per calorie, not every plant-based food comes out best. Animal products, including meat and dairy, have a higher carbon footprint than sugars or grains, but also have higher nutritional value. For example, corn produced 1.9 g of CO2e/kcal, which is slightly more than the 1.8 g of CO2e/kcal produced by beef. When meat is substituted calorie-per-calorie for vegetarian products, the effect of is modest. Do a little research to figure out which fruits and vegetables are more carbon-friendly! Click here for a list of products and their impact per calorie.

Studies find that with smart substitution of meat-based products it’s possible to reduce food-related CO2e emissions by up to 19% while still maintaining a healthy diet! Check out our Meatless Monday posts to find great vegetarian recipes.

 The best approach to reducing the footprint of your food does not lie in a single action – it has to be an integrated strategy. Incorporating the different tips mentioned above and purchasing carbon offsets will allow your lifestyle become more carbon-balanced.

Changing your diet could help reduce the carbon footprint of your food:

  • Eliminating waste by eating what you buy — 25%
  • Going vegan — 25%
  • Eating in-season, while avoiding hothouses and air freight — 10%
  • Recycling and avoiding excessive packaging — 6%
  • Reducing waste by buying items from the front of the shelves, reduced-price items, and misshapen fruit and vegetables — 2%
  • Cooking using less energy— 5%

Using these facts to guide your diet, you could comfortably cut down the footprint of your food by 60% and reduce your total footprint by almost 20%. Want to calculate your carbon footprint? Use our carbon calculator. How is your diet reducing your carbon footprint? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page. Follow us on Twitter and Pinterest for more sustainability tips.


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