When Local Food Helps Fight Climate Change — and When It Doesn’t

by Luc Reid
This article originally appeared in the Williston (Vermont) Observer

Burlington Farmers Market

Burlington Farmers Market

We Vermonters have it made where it comes to local food. While our growing season is short, we’re long on Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) options, farms, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and gardens.

After Hurricane Sandy, I got interested in local food as a way to help fight climate change. On average, food is the fourth biggest household contributor to climate damage (after transportation, electricity and combined home heating and hot water). Unfortunately, it turns out that “local” doesn’t always mean “low climate impact,” but a few pointers can help us know when it does.

One of the best ways to lower our food footprint is to eat more plant products and less meat. For example: according to carbon footprint expert Mike Berners-Lee, half a pound of strawberries grown nearby in season has only about 1/20 of the climate change impact of, say, a cheeseburger. Cows (as well as sheep, goats, llamas, buffalo, deer, etc.) eat grass and emit methane, a greenhouse gas more than twenty times as bad as CO2. This gives dairy products a larger footprint and puts red meat among the worst climate offenders compared to pork (not as bad), poultry and fish (better), or in-season vegetables and grains (best). Some plant-based alternatives to meat include tofu, seitan (“wheat meat”), and beans.

Local grass-fed beef, though there are very good things about it, unfortunately has about the same climate impact as anonymous beef from far-away factory farms.

The other big climate troublemaker among foods, believe it or not, is the evil twin of those local strawberries. Fruits and vegetables grown in hothouses or flown in from distant places can have a hugely inflated carbon footprint. For example, hothouse or air freight strawberries are almost twelve times as bad for the climate as local, seasonal ones. Other big offenders include out-of-season cherry tomatoes and asparagus.

Some plant foods from distant parts aren’t so bad. Bananas, for instance, are usually shipped by low-impact methods like boats, and they don’t have to be rushed or refrigerated, so their footprint is quite small.

In Vermont, we have root vegetables, apples, and preserved plant foods (like pickles, dried tomatoes, kimchi, and frozen strawberries) available throughout the winter. Additionally, Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury, which offers weekly food pickups throughout the state, grows foods like spinach and mesclun right through the winter in greenhouses that are heated with used vegetable oil instead of fossil fuels.

Of course, there’s no fresher, more local food than what comes from your own back yard. Gardening isn’t always easy, but it can be a fun and relaxing hobby at home or in a community garden, and there’s no way to beat your own fresh corn or tomatoes. Beyond the garden, other great home growing opportunities for Vermonters include blueberries, hazelnuts, and stone fruits like plums. Even if you don’t have a yard, it’s often easy to grow some greens or strawberries in containers on a porch or stoop, and beyond the great taste, eating your own produce connects you with your food in a way nothing else can.

Even food grown at home generally isn’t free of climate impact, though. Careful use of water and building materials, together with avoiding chemical fertilizers and sprays, can keep that footprint small.

Here are a few tips for shrinking your climate foodprint:

  • Include more plant foods and less meat in your diet as well as you can while still meeting nutritional needs
  • Local and regional foods usually have a smaller impact than ones from far away
  • Organic foods are usually more climate-friendly than non-organic ones
  • Poultry and some kinds of fish and shellfish have a lower footprint than pork and dairy, which in turn have a lower footprint than red meat
  • It’s estimated that in the U.S., we waste up to half of the food we produce! Buy no more than you need and use what’s in your refrigerator to keep waste down and save money.

Remaking Holidays for Sustainability: Ways to Improve Any Holiday

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, the Fourth of July, and other holidays all have a few things in common: they tend to involve travel and special meals or feasts. For many extended families, like mine, these kinds of occasions are the only times during the year we all have a chance to see each other, yet travel and food are two of the four biggest ways individuals and households contribute to global warming*. So our choices are to give up on sustainability over the holidays, to give up on the holidays, or to find ways to the holidays more sustainable, starting now. These posts are focused on that last option.

The way I propose we look at cutting any emissions is “biggest impacts first.” We often look for the easiest, most obvious ways to act more sustainably, but the truth is that there are so many low-impact things we can do, we can easily spend all our time on those and never get to the good stuff, the major savings. That’s where the Big Four offer a starting point. With those in mind, here are some tips for the making the largest possible savings in emissions at the holidays.

Rethink air travel: Flying around the country and even the rest of the plant has become relatively inexpensive and easy, but unfortunately it’s one of the worst offenders in terms of emissions. Not only do planes burn a lot of fossil fuels, they push out their exhaust at altitudes where their bad effects are at least doubled compared to what they would be on the ground. It’s not up to me to tell you or your family members not to fly, but there are ways to fly less, for instance driving together in an efficient car, taking a bus or plane or boat, or making one longer visit instead of two shorter ones. For more information on flying, see “You Want Me to Stop Doing What?”

If the trip is very important to you and you can’t find any way to make it other than air travel, you can consider making a donation to offset the climate impact. For example, Cool Earth is a non-profit organization that does excellent work preserving forests, which is one of the best possible ways to help slow climate change (even better than planting new trees). Donations to organizations that make a smaller or less direct impact would have to be proportionately larger.

The cost of offsetting a flight depends very much on how long the flight is. For a transatlantic round trip, an offset donation to an organization like Cool Earth would be only $20.90. A short round trip, for instance between Niagara Falls and New York City, would be only about $2.50. (Source: How Bad Are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee)

Not making the trip in the first place is certainly the ideal way to go, but offsetting is a decent alternative if you are having trouble finding away around flying.

Use food well: According to FeedingAmerica.org, between 25% and 40% of all food produced in the U.S. will never be eaten. Take a moment to reflect on that with me: At least a quarter of all our food, and possibly closer to half, goes completely to waste! Meanwhile, much of this food is produced with energy-intensive methods that burn many tons of fossil fuels; methane from ruminant livestock (cows, sheep, and goats) that is more than 20 times as potent in damaging the climate than carbon dioxide; and chemical fertilizers that release Nitrous Oxide (NO2), a greenhouse gas more than 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Careful attention to what and how much food we buy and how we serve and store it can cut our personal food waste to far below the usual amount.

Time permitting, I’ll be posting further ways to transform the holidays over the coming weeks. A happy and sustainable holiday season to all!

Photo courtesy of Emily Barney

* The other two are heat/hot water and electricity.

How Supermarkets Can Make Money on Ugly Produce

Ugly produce is a big problem. Why? Because depending on whom you ask, 30-50% of all food produced is wasted, thrown away … whether it’s tossed out because it’s not pretty enough to put on display, left over on your plate at a restaurant, or rotting in your crisper, all of this food has an enormous carbon footprint–by one estimate, 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions!

Because so much produce, when picked, is not beautiful, consciously choosing ugly produce can help reduce waste–because normally, other people will avoid it. However, French supermarket chain Intermarche launched this promotional campaign to help reduce food waste of “undesirable” fruits and vegetables. Rather than throw out ugly, deformed, or damaged produce, Intermarche instead sells them with a unique twist.

Thanks to my friend and fellow Sustainable Williston member Marie-Claude for passing this on to me.

Making Teenagers Eat Local Foods

Mutsu apples

My son and I were passing by City Market in Burlington last night and stopped in to get some apples, because Ethan snacks on them pretty regularly. Here’s what happened, more or less–but understand I’m reconstructing the dialog from imperfect memory, so if anything Ethan says sounds goofy, assume it’s my fault.

Our family is just starting to work hard at eating locally (see Is “Eating Local:Too Expensive for Regular Folks?“), so we went to the produce section and looked for local apples. This is something that City Market has really nailed: they had six or eight varieties of local apples–but the granny smiths, my son’s favorites, are from Washington.

“You can get any of the local kinds,” I said.

“What do these taste like?” he said unenthusiastically, pointing to some imperfect-looking, Vermont-grown green apples. They had a name I’d never heard before.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Should we get some and find out?”

“Can’t we just get these?” he said, meaning the Washington Granny Smiths.

“These were transported all of the way across the country, probably on a truck!” I said. I was aware I sounded a little fanatical, but I haven’t figured out yet how to temper that and still get my point across. “They used a huge amount of fuel to get these here.”

“Yeah, but they’re already here. What difference does it make?”

“If we don’t buy them, then it makes it less likely they’ll run out soon and reorder them. We want them to order more of the local apples, so we should buy some of those.”

“Well, I don’t think it makes very much difference if we’re the only ones doing it.”

“That’s true … but if we want other people to buy local foods, we have to be buying them ourselves first. We can’t expect people to do things we want them to when we’re not willing to do them ourselves. We can have an impact that’s a lot bigger than just our family.”

We ended up getting some crisp, local Empire apples, which will probably be fine, but aren’t Granny Smiths.

I realized as we were on our way home that I probably should have gotten a few of those Vermont green apples, and in fact should have gotten a variety of apples so that we could try them all and choose our local favorite. It turns out City Market has a whole Apple Variety Guide page, and looking there, I recognize the apples we saw. They were Mutsu apples, and the flavor is listed as “tart,” which sounds a little like a Granny Smith.

One of the real benefits of changing our diet to much more local foods is that we’ll encounter a lot of new options, some of which are sure to become favorites. Speaking in terms of our enthusiasm for a local diet, the sooner we find those wonderful new foods, the better.

Eating Local: Too Expensive for Regular Folks?

mostly-local groceries

$116.30 worth of mostly-local groceries

I guess this eating local thing isn’t for sissies! (No disrespect meant to sissies, by the way.)

If you happen to have read some of my recent posts, where I talk about the surprisingly huge negative impact of cheap meat on climate change and about the amount of oil that goes into growing and transporting typical grocery food, you won’t be surprised that I’m trying to change my food-getting to a hard-core localvore approach.

The conversation with my girlfriend, who’s a pretty remarkable person, went something like this:

ME: I’m terrified by how bad the climate change problem is. We have to go localvore right away. It will probably be expensive and a huge pain in the butt.
JANINE: I get where you’re coming from and understand all your concerns. I’m in.

OK, we didn’t literally talk like that, but Janine, who is emphatically and blessedly not the kind of person who does something just because someone else says to, already understood a lot about the problem and was willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary. May every one of you who reads this have a significant other as smart and supportive as Janine.

So this weekend we headed out to buy some local groceries. We already tended to buy sustainable and organic products and cage-free eggs, all with as minimal a level of packaging as we could get, but we haven’t in the past paid very much attention to how far away our food originated. Now, suddenly, that’s our primary concern. According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma,

… growing the food is the least of it: only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around.  At least in terms of the fuel burned to get it from the farm to my table, there’s little reason to think my Cascadian Farm TV dinner or Earthbound Farm spring mix salad is any more sustainable than a conventional TV dinner or salad would have been.

So if it’s between organic food from across the country and conventional food from across the county, I now know which one must win if we’re going to fight off climate change. It has to be local.

Photo by Church Street Marketplace

City Market in Burlington – photo by Church Street Marketplace

You would think that in Burlington, Vermont, at the wonderful City Market/Onion River Coop, eating local would be easy. Vermont has a strong localvore movement, and Burlington, though small, is the biggest center of commerce and innovation in the state.

Was it easy? Hell no. Was it cheap? Hell no. Was it even possible to find all the foods we wanted to get, foods that are we already know somebody somewhere does produce in Vermont? No!

The process was more complicated than we expected. Fortunately, practically every kind of food we looked at had some kind of labeling that let us know whether it was from Vermont or not. (In a couple of cases, we also bought foods from nearby New York and New Hampshire. Parts of Quebec would also be fine.) However, the label often told us only where the food was packaged and (where applicable) processed. For instance, we were excited about being able to get some Vermont meat products from a company called Vermont Smoke & Cure, and we got practically all the way to the registers before we realized that the products we had from that company all had an announcement on the label stating that they were sourced in different locations in the United States and Canada, but smoked and packaged in Vermont. For all we knew, the livestock in question could have been raised in the Midwest. We put the products back and got others that said specifically on the label that the livestock were raised in Vermont.

Breakfast cereals (other than granola), mustard … a variety of prepared products couldn’t be found with Vermont sources at all. We completely failed on our breakfast cereal, buying products sold by Barbara’s Bakery, a California company. Going forward, I think we’ll need to find some locally-made products that aren’t available in most stores or else simply switch the kids to oatmeal and that kind of thing. Local oats, we can get–and that’s less processing, too. Maybe that’s the way to go.

We did find mustard from New York. It’s weird mustard (dark brown in color and kind of sticky), but it tastes good.

I wanted to buy some whole chickens, but the local ones (from Misty Knoll Farms, which has a great local reputation) cost $20-$25 each, and we just can’t afford that. We did buy some local ground turkey and such, but at prices that we may not be able to continue to pay on our middle class incomes. Obviously non-meat sources will be important, too; we’re working on that.

Dairy products were a bit easier than others, although still painfully expensive. One of the delights of the shopping trip was re-discovering Strafford Organic Creamery milk: it’s a local product produced by pastured cows (instead of cows fed subsidized agribusiness corn) and sold in returnable glass bottles; you pay a deposit on them. No plastic except for the cap! We also had some pretty good yogurt and cheese choices, as you can imagine. Local eggs from free-range, pastured chickens were available but expensive.

Produce was a disappointment, and it’s a reminder that we’re going to need a winter CSA share and/or some edible plants growing in our house and/or a little greenhouse. We found bags of romaine lettuce, three heads per bag, with such a small amount of lettuce in each head that the three of them together didn’t amount to as much lettuce as one normal head. This cost over four dollars. After some continued shopping, we discovered that the four dollars and fifty cents or so that they wanted for those three tiny heads was a discount because the lettuce was getting near its time; normally the heads are $1.89 each! We sucked it up and bought the shrinky-headed discount lettuce.

We talked a lot about other options. That greenhouse might be a good idea for winter produce, and despite the electricity expense, we think we can probably achieve a substantial net carbon savings by getting an efficient chest freezer for produce and pastured meat bought in bulk from local farmers. (Pastured, local meat doesn’t have anything like the terrible carbon impact that corn-fed meat from a distant source has.) We might even try keeping some chickens in the fortunately-large back yard we have at our disposal. This is made a little more plausible because we have children who can help us grow food and maybe look after small livestock.

So we still have a long way to go, and at some point we’ll have to make difficult choices about things like citrus and the delicious fake coffee we buy (Teeccino … not my favorite name for a product, but it sure is good). We have taken the first step, though, and as long as we keep pushing forward, I think we can make huge changes for our family … then maybe help other local people do the same.

Pop Quiz: 50% of Global Warming is Due to … What?

grass-fed cow

This particular, grass-fed animal is part of the solution, not the problem

When I started digging into the climate change problem in earnest to start learning what we need to do to make the greatest immediate impact possible, I was worried about what I’d have to give up. Did I need to stop driving, something that’s very problematic in an area like mine, where there’s no public transportation for miles and even bicycling isn’t safe for at least a third of the year? Did I need to give up buying most manufactured goods? Was technology and all of the energy going into it the biggest problem?

Put Down the Hamburger … and Back Away Slowly
I still don’t know how far I’ll need to go in those areas, but I have learned that the biggest problem isn’t with the electricity I’m using or even with the gas my car uses (even if I didn’t drive a Prius). The biggest problem is food–specifically, meat, dairy and eggs.

Get this: in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, McKibben says “By some estimates, as much as half of global warming gases can be tied to the livestock industry, with its huge demands on our grain crops.”

Certainly there are some qualifiers in there: “by some estimates,” “as much as,” “can be tied to” … but even if 50% isn’t our number, and livestock only account for, say, 30% of global warming gases, that’s still an enormous slice of the problem that we can really do something about–and pretty easily!

Not the Cow, but the Corn
I’ll clarify, as well as I can from my limited knowledge, why the deli turkey or eggs or hamburgers (especially the hamburgers) on our plates are such a huge part of the problem. Of course there’s the obvious impact of all the equipment and energy that go into raising, housing, and slaughtering livestock, and there’s all of the energy and materials that go into preparing, packaging, storing, refrigerating, shipping, and selling the result. What really tips the scales, though, is what we feed livestock in big, factory farms, where the cheap meat, eggs, and dairy products come from: that’s mainly corn.

The corn is subsidized by the U.S. government, so that farmers are pushed toward cultivating huge, corn-only farms, which deplete the soil and require huge amounts of petroleum-based fertilizers, not to mention being extremely susceptible pests so that they require huge amounts of petroleum-based pesticides. Of course there’s a lot of mechanization at these huge factory farms, too, so oil is substituted for people (and jobs) with small numbers of farm workers operating huge, expensive, and polluting machines to raise and harvest the crops.

Then all that corn needs to be processed, packed, and shipped to factory livestock farms where it’s fed along with antibiotics and additives to chicken and cattle–and cattle don’t naturally eat corn or even digest it well, so then there’s all the trouble and waste brought up by that.

I don’t know if this sounds like good news yet, but it is, because that means that if we manage how we eat differently, we can make an immediate and proportionately huge difference in our families’ carbon footprints. What it comes down to is this: we can stop eating so many processed foods and especially cheap meats.

But … Cheap Meat!
I know, cheap meat is tempting. It seems wasteful and stupid to spend, say, twice as much on organic, local meat and dairy products just because they’re somehow “better.” However, products like local, grass-fed beef don’t have the transportation, illness, or corn-growing impacts that cheap meat have. The grass that feeds those cattle doesn’t require huge amounts of oil to grow, and even if the quality of life of the animals, the more healthful product, and the flavor factor don’t sway us, the climate change impact makes the math stupid-simple.

If you’re like me, then your next reaction was “And where am I going to come up with the money to pay for this swanky sustainable meat?” OK, maybe you wouldn’t use the word “swanky,” but regardless, there are several good answers. Here they are:

How to save money while eating more sustainably

  1. Eat lower on the food chain: more vegetables and legumes and maybe fruits and grains, less meat and dairy.
  2. Eat fewer processed foods. They take more energy to make and deliver, and unprocessed foods are much cheaper.
  3. Connect with local food producers: join a CSA and/or go to farmers’ markets. Again according to McKibben, by some estimates 75% of the cost of food in a supermarket goes to middlemen. Buying directly from the farmer saves money.
  4. Grow a garden.

There’s some more information on the oil-food connection in my recent post We’re Eating Oil–Literally.

How Much Meat Do We Need?
We can get by with a lot less meat. Check out this eye-opening chart from the Earth Policy Institute:

meat consumption

First, notice that average meat consumption per person nearly doubled in a hundred years. Even more interestingly, look at the recent trend: we’re finally turning this around!

I was actually a vegetarian for 23 years, after which I started having some health concerns and added back in seafood and poultry (but not red meat). It’s not so hard to eat less (or no) meat: at first it’s a pain in the neck because you’re not used it, but once you’ve found some good alternatives that you like, it’s pretty easy to stay on track.

You may have noticed that these approaches may take more time from us than convenience foods (hence the term “convenience,” I guess). That’s just how it’s going to be. If we’re going to really roll up our sleeves and try to prevent this catastrophe, it’s not going to be free: it’s definitely going to cost us time, even if it doesn’t cost money (it actually is likely to save us money, and may even eventually save us time, but that’s a topic for another day).

One of the most amazing things about changing food buying habits is that we can start making a big impact on our personal carbon footprint this week. The next time I go shopping, I’m going to be buying different things. It’s going to be a pain in the neck, at least for a little while, but I’m not just going to be eating better: I’m going to be sleeping better, too.

Photo by go thunk yourself

We’re Eating Oil–Literally

plastic_food

I came across a disturbing statistic today: ten to one. This was in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

It takes the equivalent of four hundred gallons of oil annually to feed an American, and that’s before packaging, refrigeration, and cooking. In 1940, our food system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel it consumed. Now, says Michael Pollan, “it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

I think I had actually read this once before and been disturbed by it then, but at the time I was still in blissful ignorance of how fast and how hard climate change would be coming down on us. Reading it this time was painful–but it also made clear an enormous opportunity. Look at this information from a 2009 sustainability report from NYU:

A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that, using our current system, three calories of energy were needed to create one calorie of edible food. And that was on average. Some foods take far more, for instance grain-fed beef, which requires thirty-five calories for every calorie of beef produced. What’s more, the John Hopkins study didn’t include the energy used in processing and transporting food. Studies that do estimate that it takes an average of 7 to 10 calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food.

So that’s painfully depressing. It’s at least possible to imagine not driving a car everywhere and turning off extra lights, but how exactly do we survive without eating?

Fortunately, as I said, there’s a huge opportunity there–three, actually.

  1. Because most food production energy goes into transportation and packaging, eating local, minimally-packaged foods drastically reduces their negative environmental impact.
  2. The figures above are for mainly conventional farming methods. Sustainable methods have a much lower impact.
  3. Eating lower on the food chain (less red meat, more beans and veggies, etc.) also greatly reduces environmental impact.

I’m ridiculously relieved that there’s at least something I can do about this. We’re already following some of these practices, but it looks like this will be the first area of changes for our family, tentatively: going localvore, reducing packaging, and eating low on the food chain. We were going in the right direction, but we need to step our efforts way up. We can do that. Actually, practically everybody could do that. I wish everybody would–but I’d better start with myself.

Photo by C Jill Reed