A hamburger with bacon and cheese often evokes delight in anticipation of taking a great big bite. That has changed for some people today, although not for the reasons you might think. Many people are now thinking about how their food contributes to climate change.
As the old adage goes, there is no free lunch when it comes to the climate. The findings of organizations like the United Nations (UN) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have identified meat and dairy, food transportation and food waste as key contributors to greenhouse gases.
In the United States, an average meal travels about 1,500 miles and much of that food requires refrigeration/freezing. Food is transported by truck, train, plane, and ship from all around the world. In 2007 the NRDC analyzed some of these impacts using California as an example. They found that almost 250,000 tons of global warming gases released were attributable to transportation of food products in the state—the equivalent amount of pollution produced by more than 40,000 vehicles or nearly two power plants.
It happens occasionally (even frequently) that we throw away food – maybe we’ve cooked too much, or bought too much, didn’t like it, or didn’t use it by its “best used by” date. Food waste is a major issue. And most of us don’t think about it in terms of climate change. However, a whopping third of all food in the world is wasted and this waste is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the US (according to the UN). The most commonly wasted foods include grains and vegetables. During the 2016 summer Olympics, a handful of chefs from around the world gathered in Brazil to use wasted food from the Olympic Village to feed thousands of homeless people every day during the two weeks the games were held.
The UN estimates that 18% of all greenhouse gasses are attributable to meat and dairy production. The growing of animals for food is an inefficient process taking into consideration the quantities of land, food, care, water, waste processing, and transportation. The Journal of Animal Science estimates that to make one quarter-pound hamburger it takes 6.7 pounds of grain, 52.8 gallons of water, 74.5 square feet of land for the animal and food crops, and 1,036 BTUs of energy for transportation (enough to power a microwave for 18 minutes). These numbers grow exponentially when figuring a billion pounds for just U.S. consumption every year. That’s a whole lot of water, land, and grain!
Please do not stop eating. I say this, of course, with tongue in cheek; levity is sometimes important when it comes to such an overwhelming and serious a subject. There are some simple things you can do that as we work together help to create a big impact.
- Vote with your fork!
- Eat locally and organically as much as you are able.
- Know your farmers and support their work at local farmers’ markets.
- Integrate plant-based meals into your diet or integrate more of them. Join the growing trend of Meatless Mondays.
- Plan your meals carefully to help reduce food waste.
- One word – vermicomposting. Worm composting may not be for the faint of heart. If it’s not your thing, you can easily compost in your back yard. In the Portland area, you can participate in curbside composting.
- Support policy work that changes how “purchase by” or “use by” dates are used.
Eat for a healthy you and ME.
Karen D’Andrea is the executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility Maine Chapter where she works together with medical professionals and health advocates to protect the health of Maine families.