All the attention on climate change brings into focus the role you can play to help protect our planet through your everyday food choices. Judging from the growing demand for local, sustainable and organic food -- and the resulting spike in the number of farmers' markets and community supported agriculture operations (CSAs) -- it is clear that many people want to reduce their environmental impact by making diet changes that lower carbon footprint.
Choosing a plant-based diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, soy foods, grains, nuts and seeds over animal foods has the biggest impact on lowering your carbon footprint. Meat requires many more pounds than its weight in grain feed, which has to be grown, irrigated, processed, packaged and shipped. And, as grain-fed cattle digest their feed, they release more greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane and nitrous oxide, which can trap heat and result in climate change.
Organically grown foods
Choosing organically grown and raised products has less impact on the environment because fewer chemical pesticides and fertilizers are used. Organic animal products have no synthetic hormones or antibiotics. Look for the USDA Certified Organic label or inquire at your farmers market where foods may be organic, just not certified as such. EWG recommends organic, humane, and/or grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy products, which are the least harmful to the environment.
Locally produced foods
Eating locally reduces greenhouse gas emissions by lowering the number of miles your food travels. With a little research, you should be able to locate local farms, cooperatives, CSAs and farmers' markets. Reducing your carbon footprint through these options can make a difference, especially when compared to the greenhouse gas emissions of many supermarket foods. Of course, it doesn't get any more local than your own backyard. Growing your own food, even if it's a window box of herbs or a rented plot in a community garden, is ideal, organic and healthy.
Eating seasonally has many benefits, including cost, flavor, freshness, supporting local agriculture and good health, says
Other things you can do
Minimize waste. A little planning and ingenuity is all it takes to minimize food waste, which contributes almost a quarter of food related greenhouse gas emissions. Save leftovers by incorporating them into soup, freezing or drying them. If it's absolutely got to go, compost it, says Feenstra. With composting, she says, "you're adding it back [to the earth], not losing it," as well as all the energy that went into producing and transporting it.
Reduce processed foods. When possible, purchase whole foods instead of processed and packaged foods, which not only take more energy to produce but also have excessive package waste.
Every move forward makes a difference, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Whether you go meatless on Mondays, choose poultry over red meat, or eat leftovers rather than wasting them, you're thinking about the consequences of your food choices: The planet wins and we do, too.
Carbon footprint of 10 common foods
If you consume this -- It's like driving this number of miles in your car
Lentils -- Less than 1/4 mile
Tomatoes -- Less than 1/4 mile
2 percent milk -- Less than 1/2 mile
Nuts -- Less than 1 mile
Chicken -- Less than 2 miles
Salmon -- Less than 3 miles
Pork -- Less than 3 miles
Cheese -- Less than 3 1/2 miles
Beef -- Less than 7 miles
Lamb -- More than 7 miles
Based on equivalency in carbon emissions for car miles driven per four ounces of food consumed. Source:
Shift to Plant Foods for Better Health and Eco-Impact
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