Food and the Climate Crisis: What You Eat Affects the Sky

The typical American diet creates nearly as much carbon dioxide as the typical car! But it’s easy switch to a climate-friendly way of eating. Learn more at www.chesapeakeclimate.org

By Mike Tidwell

(Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in Takoma Park, MD. He can be reached at mwtidwell@aol.com or 301-920-1633. To learn more about food and global warming, visit: www.chesapeakeclimate.org )

Few of us realize it, but the food we put in our mouths each day dramatically affects the global climate. The typical American diet requires the staggering equivalent of 400 gallons of oil each year.1 That, in turn, generates, nearly as much planet-warming carbon dioxide as the average U.S. car creates.2

We all know cars cause smog and contribute to global warming. But our chicken nuggets? Our winter strawberries? Our Häagen-Dazs fudge swirl? You betcha. Our country derives almost all of its energy from fossil fuels – oil, coal, and natural gas – whose use generates millions of tons of CO2 annually. And nearly one fifth of that energy is devoted in some way to food.3

How? Well, let’s start with fertilizer. Virtually all of our food crops – those directly consumed by humans or diverted to meat production – are raised with petroleum-based fertilizers. We actually extract the nitrogen we need for plant stimulation from various petroleum products. This alone takes up 30 percent of our energy budget for food.4

Then there’s our complementary use of petroleum-based herbicides and pesticides, as well as diesel fuel and gasoline for combines, tractors, and other farm machinery. We also need fossil fuels to irrigate our crops before harvest and often to dry the same crops after maturity.

 

Meat consumption and climate change

Our nation’s great consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products amplifies all of these energy needs many fold since roughly 80 percent of all corn and other grains grown in this country go to feed animals, not people.5 Not only does our annual per capita consumption of about 230 pounds of meat require an ocean of oil, it leaves us drowning in twice the government’s daily recommended allowance of protein.7

Once shipped from the farm, of course, much of our food is then refrigerated, processed, and packaged into everything from Pop Tarts to Atkins-approved microwave dinners. This requires – among other inputs – enormous amounts of electricity, which means burning whole mountains of coal. Over half of our nation’s electricity, after all, comes from the combustion of pulverized coal.8

Finally, there’s the runaway explosion in food transportation. Thanks to globalization, artificially low gas prices and massive government highway subsidies, the average kilogram of food in Maryland (and nationwide) travels at least 1500 miles from farm to plate. That’s an increase of 25 percent just since 1980.9 Indeed, the average prepared meal in the U.S. includes ingredients produced in at least five other countries.10

In this modern food transportation system, wasted energy reaches absurd levels. For example, a lettuce farmer near Atlanta, Georgia who wants to sell lettuce to a Safeway in Atlanta, must first ship the lettuce 621 miles to Upper Marlboro, MD for inspection, then ship it back down to Georgia.11 This transportation not only consumes fossil fuel but takes up extra road space and leaves the lettuce less fresh!

It should be easy now to see that we’re basically eating fossil fuels when we sit down to dinner in America, the equivalent of 400 gallons of oil per capita. Yet even people who consider themselves environmentalists and political liberals, who use efficient light bulbs and join the Sierra Club, rarely consider the impact of their food choices. A person who drives a trendy Toyota Prius hybrid car, for example, but who maintains a typical U.S. diet heavy on meats and processed foods, is actually generating twice the annual CO2 from his diet than his car.12

 

Solution: Eat organic foods grown in your region

All of these diet-related impacts on our climate and natural environment could be dramatically and painlessly reduced if Americans took three easy steps. These are 1) buy locally raised foods whenever possible; 2) buy organic foods; and 3) reduce meat and dairy consumption.

Thankfully, buying local food that has not been trucked thousands of miles gets easier every year. According to the US Department of Agriculture, regionally based farmers markets with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables have grown from 300 in the mid 1970s to 3100 in America today.13 That growth has certainly been seen in the DC region with outdoor markets now in Anacostia, Adams Morgan, Columbia and many other locations. Such markets simultaneously decrease transportation inputs while increasing community interconnectedness. One study estimates that people have 10 times as many conversations at farmers’ markets than at supermarkets.14 (Visit www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/map.htm for a farmers market nearest you.)

People across America can also buy directly from a specific farm nearest their home thanks to a practice called “community-supported agriculture (CSA).” For a set annual price, you essentially “subscribe” to a farm, receiving a standard weekly share of whatever the farm produces during the growing season. For years, my family has been getting most of its annual fresh vegetables directly from Claggett Farm in Prince George’s County, Maryland. (Visit www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/csa/csastate.htm for a CSA nearest you.)

A second important step, beyond buying locally, is to buy organically raised food. Organic agriculture eschews petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, relying instead on manure and plant-based fertilizers and reducing losses to insects by building healthy soils and planting a wide diversity of crops.

On average, organic farms use 37 percent less energy than conventional farms.15 Also, unlike soils rendered nearly biologically lifeless from petroleum inputs, organic soils are full of plant matter and various biological processes that naturally absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. According to a 23-year study by the prestigious Rodale Institute, one acre of organic crops “sequester” as much as 3,700 pounds per year of CO2, the world’s leading greenhouse gas.16 So organic food consumers fight climate change with every meal they eat.

Both fresh and processed organic foods are now widely available in this country, including at many chain supermarkets. Just as encouraging, Cuba, a nation whose life expectancy is actually longer than the U.S., has made a nearly total national switch to organic agriculture since 1991, disproving previous criticism that modern organic practices could not feed entire nations at affordable prices. 17

 

It’s easy to cut down on meat

The last critical step in the food/energy equation is reducing one’s consumption of animal products. Meat, eggs, and dairy products are high-energy, high-impact foods. It takes 40 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef and every kilocalorie of eggs produced in America requires 39 kilocalories of energy.18 Simply put, America could feed most of Africa with the grains we feed to livestock.19

A vegetarian diet also dramatically reduces your risk of heart disease, the nation’s number one cause of death. You can choose to make the vegetarian switch gradually thanks to a host of great vegetarian “meats” now on the market, from veggie burgers to soy sausage to chicken nuggets.

Here’s the bottom-line good news: By making the switch to mostly regionally raised, organic food – including savory vegetarian meat substitutes – each American can reduce his personal food greenhouse gas budget by at least 60 percent. That’s from around 400 gallons of oil equivalent each year to around 160.20

With even the oil industry-friendly Bush Administration now openly admitting that fossil fuels are disrupting our life-giving global climate, and with a full 17 percent of U.S. energy use now devoted to food, it’s clear we’ll never solve the climate crisis with wind farms and hybrid cars alone. We must – and obviously can – cultivate and consume “clean-energy” food, grown close to home for the benefit of the whole world.

(Mike Tidwell, a vegetarian, is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in Takoma Park, MD. He can be reached at mwtidwell@aol.com or 301-920-1633. To learn more about food and global warming, visit www.chesapeakeclimate.org. )

Footnotes

1 Food, Land, Population and the US Economy. Pimentel, David and Giampieto, Mario. Carrying Capacity Network, 1994

2 Average US car driver emits 10,959 pounds of CO2 annually, according to the US EPA. Average US diet requires 400 gallons of oil x 22 pounds of CO2 per gallon = 8800 pounds of CO2

3 Food, Land, Population and the US Economy. Pimentel, David and Giampieto, Mario. Carrying Capacity Network, 1994

4 Ibid

5 Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. Pimentel, David and Pimentel, Marcia, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 2003

6 American Meat Institute, fact sheet, 1999, http://www.amif.org/FactSheetMeatProductionandConsumption.pdf

7 Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. Pimentel, David and Pimentel, Marcia, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 2003

8 US Department of Energy http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/classactivities/CrunchTheNumbersIntermedia teDec2002.pdf

9 Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market. Halweil, Brian. p. 6. Worldwatch Paper 163, November 2002

10 Norberg-Hodge, Helena , Todd Merrifield, and Steven Gorelick. Bringing The Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness. Bloomfield , CT : Kumarian Press. 2002. p.45

11 Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market. Halweil, Brian. p. 9. Worldwatch Paper 163, November 2002

12 US Prius driver emits 4,991 pounds of CO2 annually, according to the US EPA. Average US diet requires 400 gallons of oil x 22 pounds of CO2 per gallon = 8800 pounds of CO2

13 Matthew Hora and Judy Tick, From Farm to Table: Making the Connection in the Mid-Atlantic Food System. Washington, D.C., Capital Area Food Bank, 2001.

14 Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market. Halweil, Brian. p.13. Worldwatch Paper 163, November 2002

15 The Rodale Institute, 2004. http://www.newfarm.org/depts/NFfield_trials/1003/carbonsequest.shtml

16 Ibid

17 The End of the Oil Age, Pfeiffer, Dale Allen, 2004. Chapter 19

18 Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. Pimentel, David and Pimentel, Marcia, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 2003

19 Ibid

20 Worksheet: Average US meat diet = 1.1 gallons of oil/day = 401 gallons/year Lacto-ovo vegetarian = .83 gallons of oil/day = 303 gallons/year (25% reduction over meat diet) Vegan vegetarian = .60 gallons of oil/day = 219 gallons/year (45% drop over meat diet)

Average US meat diet requires 1.2 acres land Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet requires .85 acres of land Vegan vegetarian diet requires .61 acres of land

· All figures above from Dr. David Pimentel, CornellUniversity

According to a 23-year study by the Rodale Institute, an organic acre of farmland sequesters about 3670 pounds of CO2 per year. Organic farming also uses about 63 percent less fossil fuel inputs for production than conventional farming, according to Pimentel.

Thus: An organic vegetarian requires only .85 acres of land and that acre sequesters up to 3119 pounds of CO2 per year. The non-organic vegetarian diet requires 303 gallons of oil per year. So 303 gallons times 22 pounds of CO2 per gallon minus .85 acres of land times 3670 pounds of sequestered CO2 = 3546.5 pounds of CO2 which equals 161 gallons of oil.

Thus, an organic lacto-ovo vegetarian diet generates 60 percent less C02 (161 gallons of oil/year) than a average meat-based non-organic diet (401 gallons of oil/year).

Using the same data, the CO2 reduction for a vegan organic diet is 70 percent (117 gallons of oil/year)

Also see: Soil Conservation Council of Canada . “Global Warming and Agriculture: Fossil Fuel” Factsheet volume 1, #3. January 2001.

Constact Gordon LaBedz, Los AngelesGLaBedzMD@aol.com

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