I think that we can all agree that food is a pretty big part of our lives. Because food plays such a large role in our existence, it’s not hard to imagine that the production and transport of our food is a big contributor to our overall carbon footprint. Being a conscious shopper and consumer of food is a great way to lessen your impact on the globe. Here are a few things to consider the next time you are in the grocery store or eating out.
1. Transportation – Transporting the food that we eat is one of the biggest contributors to the food’s carbon cost. When thinking about the carbon cost of a food, it is important to take into account not only the distance that a food has traveled, but also how that food traveled. That is to say, it most likely takes far less fuel to ship French wine by sea to the east coast of the US than it does to ship the same amount of wine from California by land.
2. Ingredients – A product that uses many different ingredients will most likely be far more costly than a food that uses fewer ingredients. This is because in addition to the fuel it takes to gather and transport all of the ingredients to a central production site, it takes even more energy to put the ingredients together into the final product.
3. Energy – Consider the environmental cost of the food. For example, beef is a more costly source of protein than beans for several reasons. First of all, the beef accrues the carbon cost of the feed that it eats, while the beans get their energy from the best know renewable energy source, the sun. Secondly, beef has the negative environmental impact of its methane production, while beans have the positive impact of photosynthesis. Third, the production of beef has many more steps and by products than does the production of beans. Finally, the run-off from feedlots is far more harmful than any by-product of bean growth (so, if you eat less beef, you will also be helping the planet).
4. Size of operation – Generally speaking, food that is produced by smaller operations will have a smaller carbon cost than food that is produced in larger businesses. We will use the example of vegetable growth to illustrate this point. Larger operations will most likely use more large machinery in the growing and harvest process than will smaller operations and this means that larger operations will use more fuel. Larger operations are also more likely to use larger and more general applications of things like fertilizer and insecticides than will smaller operations. It is also important to think about the size of the provider. Large grocery store chains usually send all of their products to a central distribution site where it is stored and then redistributed to regional branches. Smaller groceries most likely do not have redistribution centers and this cuts out a leg of transportation, which ultimately saves fuel. In addition to added fuel costs, keeping produce cool and fresh while in storage uses energy and chemicals.
While it is true that no one factor is a good benchmark for judging a food’s greenness, using what information you know about a product, you can make informed choices that will help to decrease your carbon footprint. Generally speaking, food that travels a shorter distance, uses fewer total ingredients in its production, and is produced and/or provided by a small organization will be a good choice. If you want to get a rough idea of your food’s carbon footprint, check out this UK calculator. There are also plenty of ecological footprint calculators out there if you would like to determine your overall footprint.