Shrinking your carbon footprint: How your food choices impact the environment

If you're like me, you're looking for ways to shrink your carbon footprint. 

Also, if you're like me, you're trying to sort through the enormous amount of information out there and figure out what's real.

There are WAY more questions than I've got time to answer in a single post, so I decided to start another recurring series where we talk about sustainability.

In this post, we're talking about food choices and answering these questions (& more):

  • Is grass-fed beef really more environmentally friendly than conventional beef?
  • Is almond or oat milk a better environmental choice?
  • So, what's the deal with eating locally and in season?

Eat Local and Seasonal

Quite a few articles now claim that eating local doesn't significantly reduce your carbon footprint, and I'm calling bunk on that. 

Eating local CAN reduce the food portion of your carbon footprint by between 5% and 11% based on which studies you're looking at, and that's HUGE (and an easy win), so eat local peaches in July/August, but skip them in January (they don't taste good then anyways and they're coming from a hell of a long way - Chile is over twice as far to almost anywhere in the US than California is from Georgia). 

One way to be sure you're eating locally and seasonally is to join a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

Here's the beauty of a CSA:

  • You're buying local, which reduces the impact of shipping your produce to a grocery store
  • You're supporting local (and typically small) farms
  • You're eating in season
  • Oftentimes, small farms tend to grow more heirloom varieties of crops, which means they taste better and they maintain biodiversity

apples harvested from an orchard

Find a CSA near you at one of these sites:

Cut down on the meat you eat (especially beef)

Meat has definitely gotten a bad rap for contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

An average person's diet generates about 2.5 tons of greenhouse gases per year compared with a vegetarian's diet, which generates about 1.7 tons of greenhouse gases

Notice I said vegetarian and not vegan.  Yep!  There's hope for all of us!  If possible, choose American dairy (assuming you live in the States).  As for your eggs... yet another reason to join a CSA :)

And, if you cannot stand the thought of giving up all meat, cut out the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases, and that's beef.  Just by eliminating beef from your diet (and still enjoying chicken, fish, and even pork), you can reduce the carbon footprint required to supply your diet from an average 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide emitted per year to about 1.9 tons of carbon dioxide per year. 

The other thing to keep in mind when selecting your food is to think about the crop itself.  For instance, oat milk or almond milk?  Production of almonds emits less GHGs than oats, but almond crops need more water than oat crops.  So, it winds up being a wash.

"Brief" tangent:  I always choose almond milk over oat milk because UNLESS THEY'RE ORGANIC, glyphosate is typically used to "ripen" oats. (I'm also gluten sensitive and while I can solve both those problems with organic, gluten free oat milk,...

To be fair, the largest supplier of oatmilk in the US, Oatly, sends the finished oatmilk for testing at random to ensure it's glyphosate residue free.  Of interest, Oatly fails to answer the question "Do you use glyphosate ripened oats?" on their FAQ page instead pointing to the fact the oatmilk itself is free of glyphosate residue...

I have a really hard time getting past the fact that oats are field crops ripped up every year while almonds grow on trees... even if the land footprint is larger to grow almond crops than oat crops.

And yes, I know the science accounts for the oat crop being annual in GHG calculations, but, yet the irrational part of my brain cannot move past it... yeah, looks like I'm human after all).

Rounding out this tangent with another note on glyphosate.  Glyphosate is used to ripen sugarcane (see references below), so it's important to opt for organic sugar (this goes for regular white sugar and also brown sugar, which still is high in molasses content)

almond trees in bloom

Okay, while I'm on a tangent:  Organic does not mean sustainable, (even though it's generally more sustainable than conventionally grown food). I'm glad you found that statement helpful :)

Phew!  That feels like a lot of information (and maybe I let out a little too much crazy in that tangent talk).

If you want to get a good idea of how much greenhouse gases are emitted each year with some common food choices, check out the BBC's "How your food choices impact the environment."  The interactive calculator is just over a third of the way down that link.

Impact of Grass Fed Beef vs. Feedlot Beef on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

This issue is profoundly complicated.  It turns out, most grass-fed beef actually comes from New Zealand, Australia, or South America, and shipping is highly inefficient (I'll cover the carbon footprint of shipping in a future post and backlink it here once that article is posted). 

And, the answer is still WAY more complicated than just looking at greenhouse gas emissions.  Overall, factoring in quite a few environmental factors including soil health, grass-fed beef is better for the environment, especially if it's a local herd.

You can definitely find articles supporting either type of beef, but I really think the better choice is to opt for something other than beef. 

One note:  if you love a good hamburger or steak, don’t feel guilty for ordering it and enjoying it.  The point of this article is to give you ideas for ways to cut your carbon emissions not make you feel bad for what you’re eating for dinner.

Next in the series, we're talking about how to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions while cooking.

If you found this article helpful, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

And, now, it's time for today's In Tune segment.

April 26th marks the first super moon of 2021.  Supermoons happen when the moon is full and at its closest point in its orbit to Earth making the moon appear larger.  April's Full Moon is known as the Pink Moon because it usually happens when pink phlox blossoms burst into bloom blanketing the ground with bright spring color.

And, the Lyrid Meteor Showers are expected to peak just before the full moon.  You can catch the showers between April 19th and the wee morning hours of April 23rd.

References

Do ugly produce subscription boxes hurt or help the environment?  Here's why a CSA is better

Herbicides used for ripening sugarcane

Which plant based milk is best?

Brandy Searcy founder Rain Organica

About the Author

Brandy's a formulation scientist and self-proclaimed health geek who loves hiking, gardening, bird-watching, and body boarding. 

Her struggle with acne during her teens and 20s led to a holistic and healthy approach to skincare, embracing skin as an organ to be loved and cared for rather than a canvas to wage war on. 

Since 2008, she's been developing all-in-one products for a simple routine at home, & Rain Organica started when her backpacking friends asked for a portable skincare routine to keep their skin healthy & happy on and off the trails.

You can try Rain Organica for yourself with The Essentials Kit, a complete skincare routine in just 3 steps.

Brandy's LinkedIn Bio

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