An upcoming article to be published in Environmental Science & Technology Journal will present data that show the choice of food eaten can significantly reduce or increase a family's household impact on climate change. Carnegie Mellon researchers Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews article expands the perspective of the question asking if reducing "food miles", i.e., consuming locally grown foods versus those transported in from afar, decreases greenhouse gas emissions and thus reduces an individual's and/or family's food-related contributions to global warming.
Their analysis shows that the transportation involved with the distance that food travels produces only around 11% of the average American household's food-related greenhouse gas emissions. They do agree that fruit, vegetables, meat and milk produced closer to home require fewer petroleum-based transport miles than foods brought cross country (or from the other side of the world!) to your table, however, their analysis demonstrates that the large amount of greenhouse gas emissions involved with producing the food matters more than the distance traveled.
The authors also agree with other reports that eating less red meat and/or dairy products will lower food-related climate impacts. They give some examples to put these recommendations into perspective by estimating that a shift to eating an entirely locally grown diet would reduce the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions as much as reducing your driving by 1,000 miles per year, while changing only one day per week's meat and dairy-based calories to chicken, fish, or vegetables would have about the same impact. However, shifting entirely from an average American diet to a vegetable-based one would reduce the same emissions the equivalent of driving 8,000 fewer miles per year. (Wow, I no longer feel like I need to purchase a hybrid car to significantly reduce my personal impact on climate change.)
"Where you get your food from (i.e., where it is grown) is a relevant factor in family food decisions, but what you are eating - and the greenhouse gas emitting processes needed to grow it - is much more important from a climate change perspective,'' said Matthews, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon.
My recommendations would be to buy locally grown and organic food when possible and eat a plant-based diet every day of the week with no more than 2 ounces of meat per day (or equivalent animal protein - see my previous posting for examples). Making a commitment to these food choices (1) supports our local small farmers, local economy, and community, (2) reduces our impact on climate change, and (3) optimizes both our stewardship of the planet and personal health. This sounds like a win-win-win (or more!) situation to me. :-)
The beautiful graphic I used here came from the blog called A Veggie Venture, which has compiled a seemingly endless number of delicious and exciting vegetable recipes (yes, I really do get excited looking at and eating beautiful vegetables!).
One more final thought to consider. A colleague recently reminded me of this Japanese phrase concerning both healthy eating habits and lifestyle.
"Hara hachi bu",
It means to eat until only 80% full to allow space in one's life.
Hmmmmm, I like thinking about the space in my life image. :-) Is this more physical space, i.e., in my stomach or getting those closets and rooms finally cleaned out, space within each day (i.e. time), more days in my life span, or what? What does more space in your life mean to you?
Diana Dyer, MS, RD