All the food we eat comes with a carbon footprint.
According to The New York Times’s Climate Fwd: newsletter, “[a]bout a quarter of all planet-warming greenhouse gasses emitted each year are a result of how we feed the world.” Another 8 percent of greenhouse gases are the direct result of how much food we waste.
Bringing reusable shopping bags to the grocery store is a small step toward a better environment, but what we choose to put in those bags is even bigger.
Here are a few ways of lowering the carbon cost of what we eat.
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• Dirt to dinner: Choose food that still resembles how it was grown, food that hasn’t traveled far and that is minimally packaged or — better yet — not packaged at all.
In a nutshell (which itself is a natural, biodegradable package), this means starting with raw ingredients rather than purchasing prepared or packaged foods. Apples, cucumbers, and potatoes all come wrapped in protective skins.
• Consider the package: Eggshells are fragile, but buying your eggs and carrying them in biodegradable, reusable, cardboard cartons can get them home safely and at a lower cost than buying the organic, free-range eggs that come in a plastic, three-part carton.
Even a recyclable container comes with a carbon cost as a result of producing it in the first place, of recycling it in the second, and of the high-carbon processes in between, including all the carbon-fueled transportation. Recycling also depends on consumer compliance and community infrastructure.
Recycling is good, but it’s not carbon-free. Recycling is more carbon-intensive than something that can be reused and/or composted.
• Be a locavore: Eat locally grown food in season, which is challenging during a Vermont winter.
This might mean foregoing at least some of the foods we’ve become accustomed to eating year-round, like baby lettuce, which requires more energy to produce and ship than it provides in calories.
This is a hard one for me: I love salad. But I also love the Earth, so I’m learning how to compose winter salads from hearty greens like cabbage and kale. Yes, I still buy lettuce in January — just not so much, and in the least amount of packaging I can find.
• Less meat: Eat less meat, and preferably meat that is raised locally on grass and without antibiotics or hormones. As with vegetables, buy meat that’s still recognizable as the animal it was, which means skip the frozen burgers and make your own.
While more expensive than industrially produced meat, locally raised beef, chicken, lamb, and pork are far better for both the planet and its inhabitants. And the less the food is processed, the less likely it will harbor bacteria that can prompt a product recall, make people ill, or even sometimes kills them.
Learn from other cultures by using meat more as a seasoning rather than the center of the meal.
Just because we live in a global economy doesn’t mean we need to eat food grown all over the world. One choice that would be healthier for the planet is creatively adapting global cuisines, substituting local ingredients when the authentic ones come from afar.
• Legumes: good for you; good for the planet: Eat more legumes. They are nourishing sources of protein and fiber for humans, but they also adapt well to changes in climate and improve the soil in which they grow.
• Cook more; eat less: One way to reduce food waste is to cook and eat at home. Home cooks can better assess the amount of food their household consumes and can repurpose leftovers in ways that restaurants can’t.
One way, of course, is to pack last night’s dinner and carry it to work for the next day’s lunch — in a reusable container, of course.
• Marco Polo exceptions: While it might be possible to procure a completely balanced diet within a 100-mile radius of home, I don’t. I make strategic exceptions for imported commodities I’m not ready to give up, like coffee, chocolate, olive oil, and wine.
Whenever possible, I support organically grown and/or fairly traded commodities, which are stocked at my local food co-op.
• Shop smart: This year, I’m working on reducing how much I use my car. Even though I’m behind the wheel of a hybrid, driving still accounts for the biggest share of my carbon output, so I try to make every mile count.
I plan my menus, create a shopping list, make all my appointments, and do all my errands the same day I shop for groceries.
If I run out of something midweek, my husband can pick it up at the grocery store he passes daily on his route to work. And we’re already harvesting lettuce and spinach from the garden.
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We don’t live in a perfect world, but it’s the only one we’ve got.
It’s with great sadness bordering on disgust that I have seen the natural foods movement morph into industrial food production, complete with pre-made convenience food, single-serving packaging, and a wide array of snacks and chips.
That said, I love potato chips, and I do occasionally purchase them.
But I never eat them without dipping into a large bowl of guilt.