Ever since a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that the world’s livestock industry sends more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transportation, pressure has been building on food manufacturers to measure, and ultimately to reduce, their carbon footprints. In March of this year, the British government’s Environmental Audit Committee called for the establishment of a standardized system of labeling to show the impact of consumer goods and services on the earth’s atmosphere.
In general, consumers in England are more familiar with carbon issues than we are. The government-backed Carbon Trust has been pilot-testing a Carbon Reduction Label for a few years now. But American companies are now getting into the act: In January, PepsiCo certified the footprint of its half-gallon carton of Tropicana Premium orange juice with the help of the Carbon Trust, and it plans to release the footprints of Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Gatorade, and Quaker Chewy Granola Bars in the future. (Tropicana has also partnered with Cool Earth in a “Rescue the Rainforest” campaign.)
Opinion varies as to what extent the footprint numbers will affect consumer behavior. Without a meaningful point of reference, the numbers are all but meaningless: The carbon footprint of that half-gallon of Tropicana orange juice, in case you’re wondering, is 3.75 pounds of carbon dioxide. Some have suggested that rather than listing the total pounds of carbon dioxide emitted, the labels should indicate how much carbon is embodied in every dollar spent, a system that would enable consumers to compare the impact of anything from a candy bar to an mp3 player.
Even if carbon labels don’t immediately change consumer behavior, they can help pinpoint the origins of our energy use and emissions and could likely spur reductions. In the meantime, here are some fast facts about the food system’s impact on climate change, as well as some tips on how to reduce your own footprint. The information is courtesy of the Cool Foods Campaign, a project for the Center for Food Safety and the CornerStone Campaign. To learn more, visit coolfoodscampaign.org.
THE FOOD SYSTEM
Agriculture emits greenhouse gases through the production, packaging, and transport of pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals cause erosion and pollute water, two processes that also emit greenhouse gases. The machinery used on industrial farms—from tractors to irrigation systems—creates further greenhouse gases, as do livestock: Their waste is often stored in “manure lagoons” that emit methane. (Cattle, of course, also emit considerable amounts of methane in the digestive process). Finally, the grains that comprise the livestock diet have been refined by methods that are energy-intensive as well as polluting.
Once harvested, food is packaged and then transported an average of 1,500 miles, steps that further contribute to climate change.
PLAYING YOUR PART
The Cool Foods campaign’s “FoodPrint” reflects the total amount of greenhouse gases that have been created as a result of the growth, processing, packaging, and transportation of any given food. By making better choices, consumers can have significant impact. When seeking out the “coolest” foods, just ask yourself a few simple questions:1. Is it organic?
Organic foods have been produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones, and antibiotics. In addition to the emissions from fertilizer mentioned above, nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas, is emitted when these chemicals are applied to farmland. Conventional fertilizers also pollute water sources, kill sea life, emit still more methane, and contribute to erosion, a process that creates carbon dioxide.
What you can do:
Buy “certified organic” by looking for the USDA organic label at your local market.
Conventional meat is the No. 1 cause of global warming in our food system. Animals in industrial systems are sprayed with over two million pounds—and their cages are treated with another 360,000 pounds—of pesticide every year. They also ingest a whopping 84 percent of all antimicrobials (including antibiotics) used in the United States and half of all the grains grown in the country.
What you can do:
Limit your consumption of meat, dairy, and farmed seafood. Buy organic, local, and grass-fed meat and dairy, as they are produced without synthetic pesticides and herbicides and may use less fossil fuel. Look for seafood that is wild and local and whose stocks are not endangered.
Unlike fruits and vegetables, processed foods require the use of energy-intensive canning, freezing, drying, and packaging. Processed foods are usually sold in packages and containers listing their ingredients and tend to be found in the center aisles of grocery stores.
What you can do:
Try to do most of your shopping in the outside aisles of the supermarket, where produce and other whole foods are displayed. If you must by processed products, opt for “certified organic” whenever possible.
The transportation of food accounts for over 30,000 tons of greenhouse gas per year.
What you can do:
Buy local (or relatively local) if you can. Look for country-of-origin labels on whole foods and try to avoid products that come from the other side of the globe.
Plastic packages are manufactured using oil and, as such, are responsible for creating over 24,000 tons of greenhouse gas every year.
What can you do?
Avoid excessive packaging by choosing whole foods: loose fruits and vegetables, as well as bulk cereals, pastas, grains, seeds, and nuts. And remember to bring along a reusable grocery bag.