Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

5 Links Between the Food on Your Plate and Climate Change

Popular
Daniel Vincek / Fotolia

By Brian Barth

"Certified organic" does not necessarily equate to "climate friendly." While there is some evidence that organic techniques produce as much as 40 percent fewer GHGs on average than conventional productions systems, other studies have found more or less a wash between the two. While scientists continue to debate the matter, it's important to realize that the organic standards were never intended to minimize GHGs—they're focused almost exclusively on eliminating synthetic chemicals from the food supply.


There are many other factors that determine the carbon footprint of a meal, which have nothing to do with whether it was produced on an organic farm. For example, veggie burgers, whether organic or not, produce much fewer GHGs than bacon cheeseburgers. Biscuits made from wheat produced on a "no-till" grain farm are likely to have a lower carbon footprint than those from tilled wheat, even if the former is conventional and the latter is organic. And certainly, organic mangos from Brazil are much less climate friendly than apples from your neighbor's backyard, simply by virtue of eliminating transportation emissions.

The climate implications of food are complex, poorly understood, not well quantified and not reflected in any of the popular eco-certifications out there. That's surprising given that the food system, by some estimates, is responsible for up to 29 percent of GHG emissions globally (more than transportation, energy production, or any other human endeavor).

Below are some of the connections between food choices, production methods and climate change that, arguably, deserve much more attention.

1. Starting Light: Smoothie Time

Health nuts love their fruit smoothies in the summertime. Assessing the carbon footprint of strawberry-banana-almond versus blueberry-orange-yogurt is tricky, but here's a few thoughts to chew (or slurp) on:

Overall, fruits rank in the middle of the various food groups in terms of greenhouse gas emissions—they're roughly the same as vegetables, much less than meat, and far above grains.

If you want to add milk for a richer smoothie, consider seed and nut milks, which produce a fraction of the GHGs compared to dairy.

Tree fruits (mangoes, apples, peaches, oranges) generally have lower emissions than those that grow from shrubby or herbaceous plants (bananas, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries).

Tree fruits have great potential for multi-layered agroforestry systems, which can sequester nearly as much carbon as natural forests—unfortunately, such systems are bests suited to tropical agriculture, which, for those of us in North America, means all those food miles probably cancel out the GHG savings.

2. A Trip to the Salad Bar

Foodies snap up those plastic clamshells of organic microgreens like they're going out of style. Turns out other vegetables may be a better choice for a carbon-conscious diet:

Lettuce is actually three times more carbon-intensive than bacon, according to one study, though that's only when considered on a per calorie basis (of course we eat lettuce for nutrients, not calories).

Part of the problem with lettuce and microgreens is they require huge amounts of freshwater to produce, which incurs a hefty carbon footprint from the energy required to pump it out of the ground. Thus, drought tolerant vegetables—such as dry-farmed tomatoes—are a safer salad ingredient.

Root crops (radishes and beets) tend to be low in carbon emissions, while on the flip side, a handful of other vegetables are notably high, including bell peppers, avocado and asparagus. For the kimchi lovers out there, rest assured that cabbage is one of the least carbon-intensive crops.

3. Pass the Bread Basket, Please

Wheat may be out of style among health-conscious folks these days, but feel free to reach for bread—grains, as a group, have very low carbon footprints:

Most grains have three traits that help keep their emissions down: they are well-suited to no-till agriculture; they require relatively little irrigation; they grow so abundantly in North America that there is little reason to import them from afar.

According to the Food Carbon Emissions Calculator, corn is one exception to this rule—cornbread has about twice the emissions as bread made from most other grains.

4. The Main Course

Virtually every analysis agrees that plant-based diets have far fewer emissions than meat-heavy ones, on a roughly two-to-one basis. But not all meats, or vegetarian staple foods, are equal:

Lamb is generally considered the most carbon-intensive meat, followed by beef, pork, turkey and chicken.

Seafood fares a bit better than land animals on the whole, though salmon is higher in emissions than some livestock.

Butter and cheese, according to at least one study, has a very large carbon footprint (on par with most meats), while milk is much lower.

Tofu, legumes and most other vegetarian staples are very climate-friendly.

Eatlowcarbon.org rates nearly 100 meals according to their GHG emissions—three bean soup, number one on the list, has 50 times fewer emissions than a hamburger, one of the most carbon-intensive meals.

However, rice—one of the most widely consumed vegetarian staples in the world—has an outsize carbon footprint compared to most grains and legumes. By some estimates, rice cultivation produces 10 percent of all agricultural emissions worldwide. Fortunately, new rice cultivation techniques have emerged that are cutting into that total.

Likewise, different grazing schemes have vastly different emissions outcomes, some of which actually sequester carbon if managed carefully. Livestock may be integrated into agroforestry plantings (an approach known as silvopasture), a highly efficient style of farming that produces multiple crops in an integrated system, while sequestering carbon. Collectively, the various approaches for modifying conventional farming practices to sequester, rather than emit GHGs, are known as carbon farming.

5. Don't Forget Dessert

Desserts tend to include a combination of food groups—centered on fruit, nuts, grains and tropical specialties like chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla—so it's fairly easy to extrapolate their GHG impacts from the information above.

Domestically produced nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds) are a better choice than tropical ones (cashews, macadamias); same goes for fruit.

When it comes to chocolate and tropical spices, there is no such thing as local, though most of these grow on trees and are sometimes produced in carbon-sequestering agroforestry plantations—any product labeled "shade-grown" would fall into this category.

Plantations of sugarcane, a large tropical grass, have a very low carbon footprint (like grains, which are also grasses), though this is offset if the sugar is imported (most is, though a bit is grown in the southern U.S.); thus local honey, especially if the nectar source comes from native forests (like tupelo honey), is a better choice.

Of the six desserts analyzed by eatlowcarbon.org, tropical fruit has the worst score, while seasonal domestic fruit has the best score, followed by chocolate chip cookies.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

An elephant at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island. In Defense of Animals

By Marilyn Kroplick

The term "zoonotic disease" wasn't a hot topic of conversation before the novel coronavirus started spreading across the globe and upending lives. Now, people are discovering how devastating viruses that transfer from animals to humans can be. But the threat can go both ways — animals can also get sick from humans. There is no better time to reconsider the repercussions of keeping animals captive at zoos, for the sake of everyone's health.

Read More Show Less
Isiais now approaches the Carolinas, and is expected to strengthen into a hurricane again before reaching them Monday night. NOAA

Florida was spared the worst of Isaias, the earliest "I" storm on record of the Atlantic hurricane season and the second hurricane of the 2020 season.

Read More Show Less
A campaign targeting SUV advertising is a project between the New Weather Institute and climate charity Possible. New Weather Institute

To meet its climate targets, the UK should ban advertisements for gas-guzzling SUVs, according to a report from a British think tank that wants to make SUVs the new smoking, as the BBC reported.

Read More Show Less

A company from Ghana is making bikes out of bamboo.

By Kate Whiting

Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.

Read More Show Less
Scientists say it will take a massive amount of collective action to reverse deforestation and save society from collapse. Big Cheese Photo / Getty Images Plus

Deforestation coupled with the rampant destruction of natural resources will soon have devastating effects on the future of society as we know it, according to two theoretical physicists who study complex systems and have concluded that greed has put us on a path to irreversible collapse within the next two to four decades, as VICE reported.

Read More Show Less
Researchers have turned to hydrophones, instruments that use underwater microphones to gather data beyond the reach of any camera or satellite. Pxfuel

By Kristen Pope

Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.

Read More Show Less

Trending

The fact is, cats play different predatory roles in different natural and humanized landscapes. PIXNIO / CCO

By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila

A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.

Read More Show Less