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.