Can We Eat Our Way Out of Climate Change?

BY ON December 15, 2015

vegetables in globe

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the food my family eats. I think about where it comes from, who grew it, if they had a living wage. I think about pesticides, fertilizers, soil, manufacturing processes, certifications, genetically-modified ingredients. I think about outdoor grills and air pollution. I think about unsafe chemicals in packaging. I think about waste. I think about recycling. I think about fracking. I think about compost.

In all of this consideration of the various systems of how food winds up on any dinner table, I also think quite a bit about food’s direct links to climate change. I’ve written about these links, like methane and cattle production, or how much energy it takes to get (organic) wine from France to my table, versus (non-organic) wine from New York, my home state, in several of my books, including The Conscious Kitchen. There I wrote:

“There is something compelling and tidy about the notion of being able to stamp something as ‘low carbon’…but I’m not convinced that calculating the complete greenhouse gas emissions caused by growing and transporting an apple, a hunk of parmesan, or a bottle of beer is possible, is even the right way to think of food. The math involved can get pretty convoluted.”

Some people say I think too much. Whatever.

I find value in stepping back and slowly drawing out these systems. Unless we highlight them on purpose, they are invisible — despite the fact that we all eat many times a day. Drawing attention to the unseen may even motivate you to change or shift your buying habits. That’s my hope.

I’m not writing this to tell you what to eat. That’s a personal choice. I’m writing, in an effort to get other people to question how we arrive at our personal choices, and to suggest that food’s effect on climate be part of the equation. If you’re curious, for the record, I do eat some meat, which is the poster child for harmful carbon footprint, but I never ever eat conventionally-raised meat. My version is grown and slaughtered locally, and raised on local goods, but mainly grass. Interested in hearing how meat can possibly be part of a conscious diet? Grab a copy of Defending Beef. I hardly eat any soy because it’s hard to source locally and not genetically-modified. Chinese edamame? Not for me. Plus I’m not big on overly processed anything, including vegan hotdogs. I do eat as locally and organically as possible, because I have done ample research on local and organic food systems vs. industrial agriculture and their distinct impact on global warming (not to mention health). I have educated myself on the manufacture and use of pesticides and fertilizers, and their links to climate change. Basically I try to buy stuff that doesn’t need to be flown to me. I even moved my family to live closer to the farms that feed us.

Whenever I’m stuck buying something that isn’t local, I pay attention to country of origin labels (though I am aware that miles traveled does not always equal energy cost). And I carefully source items I consume daily like coffee, tea, and — critically — water. I’m never going to find a local coffee, but I can find organically grown coffee that’s locally roasted. Filtering tap water and carrying it around in a reusable water bottle is a must. Bottled water is a rip off (most of it is municipal water anyway) and holy footprint — from the plastic bottles to the refrigerated trucks that transport it to the waste it creates.

I work hard to stay on top of the latest studies on how agriculture impacts climate change. I’m thankfully not the only one obsessively thinking this way. Food and climate — global food security, really — were on the menu at the climate talks in Paris, thanks in part to the UN’s World Food Programme and the Met Office Hadley Centre. And then there’s chef Dan Barber, challenging us all by using what is considered “waste” as high-end ingredients, and creating a market for it. Food writer, Mark Bittman recently left his comfortable post at The New York Times to put the ideas he had been writing about into action. He joined a startup vegan meal kit company called The Purple Carrot, in an effort to change the food system from within, and he’s already vocal about what a challenge sourcing ethically can be, admitting his new venture is harder than he thought.

Meanwhile my newest obsession is my case freezer, purchased to house enough local CSA goodies to get my family through the winter. I’m overjoyed with our 40+ glass jars of homemade tomato sauce, plus countless containers of greens, summer squash, strawberries, and peppers. But what about its footprint? Who is going to do the life cycle analysis of me driving to my organic local farm a mile down the road weekly (in my hybrid), doubling up on other errands as long as I’m in the car, then cooking it (with propane) and freezing it (with electricity) for the winter? How does this stack up against other food choices? I can’t answer this. I suspect no one can.

Ultimately food isn’t about climate. It’s sustenance, love, family. It’s a way to come together at a table and share ideas. It’s also flavor. I would never suggest removing all that is pleasurable about food in an effort to reduce carbon footprint. Thankfully, there are, I know all too well, ways to eat consciously and with climate change in mind, that don’t sacrifice flavor.

So, what’s for lunch?

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TOPICS: Climate Change, Food, Motherhood

  • Heather Novak, M.S.

    Love this article! Well written and gives me hope that others are taking the same things into consideration for the health of our families and our future. Bravo!