Photo: Food and climate change

(Credit: Loose Ends via Flickr.)

It's not only how we choose to travel or heat our homes that determines our carbon footprint. What we eat also has a climate impact. Understanding the resources that go into producing our meals can make us more aware of the relationship between food and climate change, and help us make better choices.

There are several factors that contribute to food's climate impact, including: how low on the food chain it is, how much energy is used to produce it (and whether the food is grown organically or with chemical inputs), and how far it has to travel before it gets to the table.

Meat and climate change

Meat production is a major contributor to climate change. It is estimated that livestock production accounts for 70 per cent of all agricultural land use and occupies 30 per cent of the land surface of the planet. Because of their sheer numbers, livestock produce a considerable volume of greenhouse gases (such as methane and nitrous oxide) that contribute to climate change. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that livestock production is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases.

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The growing of livestock and other animals for food is also an extremely inefficient process. For example, it takes approximately five to seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef. Each of those kilograms of grain takes considerable energy and water to produce, process, and transport.

As meat consumption has grown around the world, so has its climate impact.

The problems with chemical agriculture

Other agricultural practices can impact the climate. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are widely used in agriculture, and are often made from fossil fuels. Manufacturing and transporting these chemicals uses significant quantities of energy and produces greenhouse gases. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that chemical farming uses considerably more energy per unit of production than organic farms, which do not use these chemical inputs. In addition, the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in soils produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is approximately 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Organic farms, on the other hand — which rely on natural manure and compost for fertilizer — store much more carbon in the soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

Food that's closer to home

Where your food comes from is also a factor. Currently, the average meal travels 1200 km from the farm to plate. Food that is grown closer to home will therefore have fewer transportation emissions associated with it, and also be fresher and support local farmers. And as the distance food travels decreases, so does the need for processing and refrigeration to reduce spoilage.

Local or organic: which is better for the climate?

While it's good to buy locally grown food for many reasons, 'food miles' (the distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer) actually make up a relatively small percentage of the overall carbon footprint of food — approximately 11% on average, according to studies. How the food is grown makes up a much larger percentage — roughly 83%.

For example, one study showed that lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped 18,000 kilometers to the UK still produced less than one quarter of the greenhouse gases than local British lamb. Why? Because local flocks were fed grains, which take a lot of energy to grow, while the New Zealand flocks were grazed on grass. Shipping the lamb to the UK was responsible for only 5% of the overall greenhouse gases, whereas 80% of the emissions were from farm activities. Similar lifecycle assessments have found the same results for other foods. One assessment done for packaged orange juice found that over a third of the lifecycle emissions came from just the synthetic fertilizer used on the orange groves.

Choosing to buy food that is organically grown can therefore be a better choice for the climate. But if possible, buy food that that is organic and local.

So what can you do to reduce your impact when you eat?

Eat meat-free meals

Try to eat at least one meat-free meal per day. If you're already doing that, gradually increase the number of meat-free meals you eat.

Plan ahead. If going meatless means changing your habits drastically, you'll enjoy it more if you do some research and find really yummy recipes before you go shopping.

Choose veggie restaurants and meatless menu alternatives when you go out — they're sprouting up all over the place!

Check out these cool websites: Vegetarian Times, Epicurious, World Community Cookbooks

Buy organic and local whenever possible

Vote with your fork. Let your local farmers know organic is the way to grow! In addition to being better for the climate, organic food has many other advantages. First, it is grown without genetically modified organisms. As well, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy come from animals that are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones. And because organic foods are grown in healthy soils, they are typically more nutritious, containing more vitamins and minerals. Finally, organic farms promote genetic biodiversity, create less water pollution and soil damage, and result in fewer poisonings of farm workers, and less harm to wildlife.

Read labels when you shop. Choose food that is organically grown and locally produced.

Talk to the produce manager at your grocery store. Tell them what you want and why.

Other things you can do

Don't waste food. Close to half of all food produced worldwide is wasted after production, discarded in processing, transport, supermarkets and kitchens. When people throw food out, all the resources to grow, ship, package and produce it are wasted, too, including massive amounts of water. Click here to find out how you can help end food waste.

Grow some of your own food. Growing vegetables at home eliminates some of the transport required to get food to your table. It also lets you grow your food without chemicals. You can grow some great vegetables in even the smallest of spaces such as a balcony or patio space. Try growing herbs, tomatoes, lettuce, and other veggies.

Do an inventory of how you look after your garden and lawn. Get rid of toxic substances (but discard them appropriately so those poisons don't end up in landfills). For information on how to do this, check out Product Care and the Georgia Strait Alliance Toxic Smart page. Find safe alternatives, and learn how to garden organically. It's easy!

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