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Posts Tagged ‘climate-friendly diet’

Not all foods are created (climate) equal. Reference: EWG 2011

Ever wonder how much it matters to eat locally produced organic foods? From a climate change standpoint, turns out what you put on your plate matters a lot more than where it came from. Healthy eating for the planet means a lot of things, and one or the most important is avoiding lamb and beef (along with other red meats). This is partly because sheep and cows are not particularly efficient at converting the vegetable protein they eat into animal protein in their muscles (so you need a lot of grain to produce a little bit of lamb and beef). But another important factor is the fact that sheep and cows are ruminant mammals, which during food digestion produce large amounts of methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than CO2.

Since dairy products also come from ruminants, they suffer the same methane emissions problem, though to a lesser degree which varies depending on the type of dairy product. Cheese looks a lot worse than yogurt and milk, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which fashioned the spiffy graph you see above.

A study out of Carnegie Mellon University compared eating local to eating less red meat, and concluded that “shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food.” Yes, that’s all locally sourced food, as in everything you eat (bananas and coffee included) comes from your friendly farmer down the road.

We point this out not because we don’t love the ethos behind local and organic as much as your average treehugger. There are still plenty of compelling reasons to eat local and organic, like reduced chemical pesticide and fertilizer use, building community, supporting your local farmers, and becoming more connected to your food. Organic farming does have climate benefits, which can come from eliminating chemical fertilizers (made from fossil fuels) and no-till cultivation techniques that enhance carbon storage in the soil. The Carnegie study also showed that eating local can have significant climate benefits, but since only 11% of the climate impact of food comes from transportation, there’s not a whole lot of room for improvement.

So you don’t have to become vegetarian overnight, but if you fancy yourself a mealtime climate warrior then cutting back on your red meat intake should rise high on your to-do list. You can join the “Meat Free Monday” movement, or (if you’re feeling a bit more ambitious) become a “Weekday Vegetarian.” Regardless of where you live, typing “vegetarian” into Yelp will find great options down the street, and that magical system of tubes called the Internet is also awash with advice and recipes for cutting down on meat without your taste-buds skipping a beat. If your taste buds are set in their ways, try to at least reduce your food waste, which can have a BIG impact in making your eating habits leaner and greener.

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Up to 40% of food is wasted on its way to your plate.

Did you know that eating less red meat and cheese affects the environmental impact of your diet more than eating all local and organic? And it turns out there’s an even easier way to green up your groceries: only buy what you’ll actually eat. A new study by NRDC estimates that up to 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted, which includes waste at the farm, supermarket, in your fridge, and scrapped off your plate. All this rotten rubbish adds up to a tremendous waste of resources each year: 25% of all freshwater used in U.S.; 4% of total U.S. oil consumption; $165 billion in food costs; $750 million just to dispose of the food; and 33 million tons of landfill waste (leading to methane emissions, a greenhouse gas ~25 times more potent than CO2).

While part of the problem lies with inefficiencies in our food production and distribution infrastructure, which could be rectified with some government intervention, the good news is that you can also be a big part of the solution. Only buy and cook what you’ll eat and don’t shun imperfect produce (that’s still perfectly edible) and you’ll go a long way towards improving the efficiency of the whole system. Efficient eating is made extra enticing by the fact you’ll even save money in the process. And perhaps you’ll also avoid packing on pounds from polishing off overly-plentiful plates, a win for both the wallet and the waistline!

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Annual CO2 emissions for an average U.S. household (blue = direct; green = indirect). Reference: Jones & Kammen 2011.

For those of us concerned about climate change and other global issues, the challenges can feel overwhelming. Despite solid scientific consensus that our world is warming from fossil fuels and deforestation, there’s been a lot of talk but very little action to foster sustainable solutions and let cooler heads prevail. The sickly state of the global economy has led many to assume we can’t afford to do anything anyway.

But the good news is we don’t need to wait for politicians and corporations to clean up their acts. We can do it ourselves. The power plants, factory farms, timber mills, and industrial smokestacks are all ultimately producing things that we use. While the Oroeco crew aspires to live by the original Golden Rule, there’s also wisdom in its cynical parody: “(s)he who has the gold makes the rules.” It’s your gold that companies are trying to get, so we think you should also be the one making the rules. The power to change things is ultimately in your hands, and your wallet. It’s both a daunting and an empowering revelation.

Which decisions matter most? Well, the answer depends on where you live, what your lifestyle is like, and what you care about. A great place to start (at least as far as climate is concerned) is a study by Chris Jones and Dan Kammen from the CoolClimate Network (a research team based out of University of California, Berkeley). The graph above shows how greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (measured in annual metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, mtCO2e) look for an average US household. While transportation and housing represent the largest categories of emissions, it may be surprising that food and other goods and services also have substantial GHG footprints.

What makes the CoolClimate study particularly appealing is that it not only shows where there’s room for improvement, it also illustrates (in the graph below) how saving carbon can end up saving you a lot of money. Some savings can come simply from buying less stuff. Additional savings comes from investing in more efficient products, like energy efficient appliances and a low-carbon diet (e.g. more veggies, less meat). Curious where the most carbon and cash can be saved in your life? Take the CoolClimate carbon calculator out for a spin to get a personalized ranking of the actions which maximize your savings based on your lifestyle.

Average $s saved from CO2 reducing actions (green = diet; yellow = transport; gray = home). Reference: Jones & Kammen 2011.

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