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The Importance of Food
When it comes to living sustainably, there’s no doubt that our dietary choices are hugely important. Indeed, according to some sources, the rearing of livestock is, in of itself, the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions of all human activity. When the considerable impacts of intensive farming and other food related industries are factored into the equation, it becomes clear that what we choose to eat is one of the life style choices that’ll go furthest to determining our carbon footprint.
Consequently, food has always come in for a lot of attention from environmentalists. The fact that, these days, even those who aren’t avowedly green are aware of issues such as ‘food miles’ is testament to how prevalent they’ve become.
There are a number of solutions that have been posited. Organic food, for instance has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity and there are a number of start-ups in both the US and UK who specialise in organic products. Often another focus is reducing the amount of packaging waste as well.
One of the latest solutions to the problem of sustainable eating that’s been gaining a lot of steam of late is the idea of being a ‘locavore’; only eating produce from within a set radius of your home.
The benefits of this approach are manifold; you’ll be reducing the amount of transport, and thus pollution, it takes to get your food to you; you’ll be doing wonders for your local economy by supporting businesses in your area; you’ll be benefitting from having fresher, higher quality ingredients to use in your meals.
Unfortunately, the question of whether a local diet is automatically going to reduce your carbon footprint is far from straightforward. When considering how you can make your eating habits more sustainable, be sure to consider the following questions.
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How Local is Local?
It will come as no surprise to most of us that some companies play things a little fast and loose when it comes to labelling their wares. Greenwashing (the act of trying to appeal to a consumers’ environmental conscience by making a product sound more environmentally friendly than it is) is now a full blown industry in its own right.
Unfortunately, a fair bit of greenwashing goes on in the marketing of ‘local’ foods. For instance, produce is often marketed as being grown locally. While this may be the case, the food has often been transported miles away for processing and then brought back again. This makes the term 'local' worthless.
Sometimes a company will be even more underhand in trying to present their goods as local. According to the British journalist, Lucy Siegle, one company even named its fish farm to sound like a Scottish Loch so that the produce sold in that area of the world would sound as if it had been home gown.
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Do Less Food Miles Mean Less Carbon?
To quote Rich Pirog, the associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University: “Food miles are a good measure of how far food has travelled. But they're not a very good measure of the food's environmental impact."
Granted, the transportation of food makes a significant contribution to the impact our need to eat has on the planet. However, depending on the product, it only accounts for a small amount of the emissions caused in getting the food to you.
If you’re seriously trying to reduce the amount of GHGs that come with your diet, you need to look at the production of the food as a whole. This means taking into account things such as the fact that different methods of transport produce different amounts of carbon dioxide. For example, bananas are generally shipped rather than flown, meaning their transportation is a relatively low in terms of emissions. According to Mike Berners-Lee, the carbon footprint of your average banana is around 80g. Given that strawberries grown in your home country that don’t even need to fly have a carbon footprint of almost double this, it’s easy to see that distance isn’t everything. It’s vital to think, not just of about where your food was grown, but how energy intensive the methods of production where.
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What am I Buying?
Some foods are much more environmentally harmful than others. It’s a simple fact, but one that can get over looked, especially if we develop tunnel vision with regards to our focus on where food comes from. A GHG is a GHG regardless of where it’s generated. Livestock reared for dairy and meat cause massive levels of emissions no matter where they’re farmed and, according to Jeff Anhang and Robert Goodland’s paper Livestock and Climate Change, 51% of our greenhouse gas emissions are derived from the livestock industry.
This figure takes into account secondary factors linked to livestock, such a land clearing. Whilst the problem of deforestation might not apply to your locally farmed meats other secondary factors will. For example, demand for livestock creates a secondary need for huge amounts of feed. You may be enjoying locally sourced meats, but you well still be propping up intensive monocropping which a) isn’t local and b) is highly damaging.
At the end of the day, sustainability is all about efficiency. It’s a quest to find ways of making the absolute most of the resources at our disposal. Currently, worldwide, we feed 77 million tons of protein to livestock for a return of 58 million tons of protein in the food they produce, which is hardly optimal.
Of course, every little bit helps, but it’s worth considering the fact that a diet with large amounts of dairy and meat in, even in all locally sourced is, in all likelihood going to be far more environmentally damaging than one with little, or only limited amounts of these products.
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About the Author: Steve Waller is a UK based environmental blogger on a mission to reduce his carbon footprint and educate his readers in the process. You can read more about his efforts, as well as his thoughts on key green issues over at GreenSteve.com.
- Is Local Food Better? by Sarah DeWeerdt http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6064
- Photo by NatalieMaynor under CC BY 2.0
- Livestock and Climate Change http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf
- Can we believe labels that claim food is 'local'? http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/sep/06/labels-food-local-ask-lucy
- ‘How Bad Are Bananas?’ By Mike Berners Lee
- Livestock's long shadow ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/a0701e00.pdf